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Tinnitus & How We Process Sound

I’m fresh out of a tinnitus consultation today, and have been teaching a client about how sounds are processed by the brain. We did an exercise which I find really valuable in showing how this works.

Whatever room you’re in, stop doing what you’re doing and concentrate on what sounds are there. This might be the fridge humming or the TV on upstairs. If you’re outside you might be able to pick up the wind in the trees or someone’s conversation, maybe a car going past in the distance. When you find that sound, give it your attention, focus in on the characteristics of it.

What happens when we do this is the sound becomes more prominent. It takes up more space in the soundscape around us. A noise that hasn’t changed physically is now louder to us. When we go back to doing what we were doing, it fades off again. We don’t process all sounds or all our sense data equally, if we did we would constantly be distracted by the myriad different sights, sensations, smells and sounds we have access to. The brain prioritises those that are new, and those that might be threatening. Threat and stress are different topics I won’t go into here.

This is an important concept in controlling your tinnitus. The brain can mistakenly offer us the tinnitus signal and show it to us as something important. Especially when we first perceive it, it appears prominent. If we continue to examine the signal, it maintains this prominence and appears louder because of it. The brain will focus on the signal because our attention tells the brain that this is deserving of attention, and the upshot it that it continues to be the loudest thing we can hear.

If you’re stuck in a cycle of focusing in on your tinnitus, remember that exercise and reverse it. Your brain does not know what’s good for it. It presents new sounds to you in case they are important. If you focus attention on the sound you’re reinforcing the importance and the brain maintains that prominence. Sometimes the tinnitus signal can even be heard over relatively loud real physical sounds in the room.

This is why I have the rule Don’t Feed The Tinnitus. When it pops up, don’t feed it a thought or stop focusing on what you’re doing. Don’t feed it attention of any kind! This is just one of the parts of what I teach clients, but it’s such an important one.

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