Yesterday while at work, I was sitting at the front desk when I started hearing a strange thumping sound. I could have sworn it was coming from behind me - where our public computers and fiction books are - but when I looked, there was nothing that could be making the sound. It continued for several minutes while I looked around, until I realized that the sound was actually coming from in front of me. It was the sound of a volunteer stacking empty boxes and lids on top of each other in our book sale area.
To any hearing person, this experience would be very foreign and unsettling. Hearing people have the ability, as do other animals, to localize sound and quickly determine where it is coming from. Most deaf and hard of hearing people, like me, find it difficult to localize sounds, a problem which can be annoying or even life-threatening. For example, when I am in a parking lot, I have to be very aware of my surroundings in a visual sense, because while I may be able to hear a car backing up or driving by, I can't tell where the danger is.
In school, I would often be walking across campus and hear what could have been my name (or perhaps not - I find I often mix the sound of my own name up with other sounds), but I absolutely could not tell where that person was coming from. I could either stop, look around, and move in a circle to attempt to identify the source, or I could assume it was a mistake, that I heard wrong, and continue on. This has continued - in a store, or at work, if I hear my name I have to stop whatever I am doing to localize the sound as best I can and then respond appropriately.
Last night I gave it a try. I closed my eyes and had Scotty (my husband) snap his fingers in a random location around my head. I had a lot of trouble with sounds in front of me and behind me, often answering the exact opposite. Sounds to the left and right were much easier, which makes sense, because my right ear has an extremely profound loss while my left ear is a little better, so I can tell the difference easier. Then I did the same thing to Scotty, who has normal hearing. His ability to reach out and immediately grab my hand upon the first sound he heard was startling. Like a superpower! This ability really is one of the cool things about our bodies we never think about.
So what can help a lack of sound localization? I couldn't find much. My own hearing aids, with Bluetooth connectivity to each other, are supposed to help by sending signals to each other over the course of the day, but I wonder if my right ear is so far gone that I can't use that feature to its fullest. Practice would probably help, if only to get me used to the varying ways that sounds can change dependent on their location. There's an interesting article on sound localization here, from PhysOrg.