Do men hear better than women?
Listening is an active process and is more than simply detecting and perceiving sound from the environment. Listening is about extracting meaning from sound. Listening is work, in our modern world with the noise and information competing for our attention, listening is really hard work, its tiring and its hard to keep focus.
Our brains have some pretty neat techniques which help us to listen. One of them is pattern recognition. We recognize patterns to distinguish noise from signal, and we are especially responsive to things that are important to us, our name, our childrens cry or our favourite car motor. Differencing is another technique we use. This is where a sound which is constant and has low or no meaning is ignored. We do this for sounds like the hum of the fridge or if you live next to a train station or a busy road, your awareness of the traffic noises in your environment reduces to almost zero. You literally cease to listen to some sounds. We listen to differences; we discount sounds that remain the same.
We have many other filters which help our brain to make sense of our world and to focus on the sounds which provide it meaning or importance. People with long term untreated hearing loss don't use these filtering systems and begin to lose the ability to process sounds in this way. My interest in listening comes from my job as an audiologist, where I help people regain these skills and to support them to do this over time.
Sound also places us in space and in time. If you close your eyes right now and clap you will become aware of the size of the room and the type of furnishings in the room from the reverberation and the bouncing of the sound off the surfaces. Keep listening and you become aware of the people and things around you from the micro-noises you're receiving. Sound places us in time as well, because sound always has time embedded in it. When we listen consciously we live fully, connected in space and time to the physical and to the world around us. We become connected to understanding each other.
With an oversupply of low quality intrusive information barraging our visual and auditory senses its no wonder we feel strapped for time and resource. It takes less effort to process a neat sound bite instead of extracting meaning from a meandering conversation, debate or discussion. Then to help us to remove the extraneous noise, we isolate ourselves under headphones removing us from our environment and the world around us. Our brain no longer practices its sound extraction techniques and so goes it gets harder and harder. Take a moment folks to listen to the world around you, listen to the wind, the trees, the water and the birds and to silence. Listen consciously in order to live fully and to become connected to space and to time.
Alison Chiam is an Audiologist, Artist and Educator. She is an Independent Audiologist in Private Practice and is Principal Audiologist at Jervis Bay Hearing Centre (NSW). Her speciality areas include Hearing rehabilitation, Tinnitus and Sound Intolerance. At the International Tinnitus Seminar in Brazil 2011 she was part of a team who was won the Ted Vernon prize for their ground-breaking work on Tinnitus and Hypercusis.