Jerker Rönnberg has been awarded the Swedish Hearing Research Prize 2020 for his 20 years of world-leading research within cognitive hearing, based at Linköping University. He did, however, at one time think about moving to Lund. “I took a chance on Linköping University, and I have never regretted my decision”.
The things that attracted Jerker Rönnberg back then, 20 years ago, and that caused him to stay at Linköping University are the same as now.
“The department I belong to has been very open-minded, and LiU’s cross-disciplinary perspective suits my research”, says the newly crowned winner of the Swedish Hearing Research Prize, which is awarded by the Swedish Hearing Research Foundation every four years.
The ability to work across discipline boundaries is important for Jerker’s research. With one leg in medical science and the other in the social sciences, as professor of psychology he has brought together these two scientific fields and contributed to creating a new field, cognitive hearing science. This focusses on cognitive resources, such as the memory, in people who have problems with their hearing.
For a person with impaired hearing, memory plays an extremely large role. If a person with impaired hearing uses a lot of energy during a conversation to hear and understand what people are saying, it becomes difficult for the long-term memory to store the information. The person has a poorer memory of what was said.
“I became interested in how memory works when I was a teenager. It’s exciting that it it is possible to remember in so many different ways, from dreams to perfect memories. It’s also interesting that clues can help us recover memories. And remember, the memory and memory systems are what build up a personality”, says Jerker Rönnberg, sitting in his office at home in Ljungsbro, just outside Linköping. Outside the house, a new roof is being laid. Jerker warns that the noise can disturb how we hear each other during the interview.
“My interest in memory – my origin”
Jerker took his doctorate in the psychology of memory at Uppsala University in 1980. Or was it 1990? At the time, he was planning for a life as psychologist.
“Hold on a minute! I really must sort out this business with the decades. It must have been 1980. That was when Arne Risberg appeared, and changed everything.”
The white-haired “nestor” who approached Jerker after his thesis defence – who was at the time younger than Jerker is today – was Professor Arne Risberg from the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm. He wanted Jerker to help him write an application for a project on hearing and memory.
“That’s how hearing came into the picture.”
That he would devote his professional life to research was not something that Jerker Rönnberg had expected. And there was probably no one else who had any idea, either, as he hurtled down the slalom piste in Sollefteå, where his childhood home lay just at the end of the ski slope.
“I was actually quite an accomplished downhill skier. On some occasions I was in the same competitions as Ingemar Stenmark.”
But his interest in how humans work, and how we think, was taking over from skiing. In contrast with his friends on the ski slopes, he was eager to visit the library after school and read Freud.
“At the time, a pretty new thing at the library was that you could borrow headphones that excluded external sounds. Completely silent! I sat there wearing them, and ploughed through everything I could find in psychology”, he remembers. He’s a specialist in the ear and hearing, and doesn’t find it at all strange that he can remember what type of headphones he used to wear when he was 15.
The ability to lock undesirable sound out, and to concentrate on what is desired or necessary, has been a theme that runs through Jerker’s research.
“After a life working with memory, more and more of Jerker’s mind is becoming memory. He can now look back over a long research career where his objective has always been to make everyday life easier for people with impaired hearing. He has now officially retired and has the title of Professor Emeritus. But he is still active in research.
“I’m trying to round it off. But there’s a few bits left. Well, maybe there’s a few too many ‘bits’…”.
One thing he wants to complete before leaving research altogether is to update the ELU model. This is well-known in research circles and forms the basis of cognitive hearing research. He is also working on a long-term study examining the link between hearing ability and cognition in different groups.
“We want to see whether cognitive impairment depends on the hearing impairment, and whether a hearing aid can protect against the cognitive impairment that occurs with age. We will also investigate whether there is a link to dementia. But this study will last for 12 years, so we’ll have to see whether I can write the final article.”
The Swedish Hearing Research Prize awarded to Jerker is the culmination of a successful career. It is the most prestigious award within Swedish hearing research.
“I’m surprised! And extremely proud.”
This is something he will remember.
Name: Jerker Rönnberg
Career: Professor of Psychology, specialising in disability research. Has published 225 original scientific articles. Now professor emeritus.
Lives: Ljungsbro, outside Linköping
In the news: As the fourth person to be awarded the Swedish Hearing Research Prize, from the Swedish Hearing Research Foundation.
Interests: I have cycled Vätternrundan 15 times. The conventional Vätternrundan, and Halvvättern, Gubbvätten, well, all versions of Vättern that there are. And then I love downhill skiing.”
Translated by George Farrants