Seth Horowitz, a neuroscientist and Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University is asking an important question, what do you hear right now? Horowitz has a masters in Psychology, a Ph. D in Human Neuroscience, and an impressive resume; working with the National Science Foundation, The Deafness Foundation, and NASA. He is an author, publishing a book called “The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind” and is also a member of the Advanced Brain Technologies Scientific Advisory Board. When a man like Seth has devoted his life to understanding how our brains work with sound, you should really listen to him when he wants to talk about it.
In an article posted in the New York Times on Sunday, Seth discusses why sound is so much more important than we realize. First thing he asks is, what do you hear right now? In my house, it’s the distant voices of the TV in the other room, the hum and inevitable crackle of the ice maker, a leaf blower from a neighbor finishing up his yard, and of course, the fan on my laptop spinning ever so slightly. The point of this question is to make you think about the sounds around you, or more importantly, let you brain take control of your sensory experience. Listening is different than hearing, a fact that my fiancé reminds me of often. We learn to drown out sounds over time, much like parents not realizing just how loud their child is in a store, because they are so used to drowning out the sound at home. As a person without kids, a yelling child shocks me out of a relaxed state and makes me focus. That’s the difference. Seth says it best, “The difference between the sense of hearing and the skill of listening is attention.”
“Hearing is a vastly underrated sense.” I couldn’t agree more with this statement. So much of this world is focused on the visual aspect of things, missing out completely on the audio. I’ve come across similar viewpoints in gaming when interviewing Audio Directors of game companies. Audio is always the most underrated and under appreciated part of games, movies, and perhaps part of life. Next time you come across a scary movie on TV, put it on mute for a minute or two. It’s amazing how less scary, and sometimes even a bit silly it becomes. Games lose a lot of their entertainment value without sound, and music, well, what’s music without being able to hear it?
Hearing is a mind-blowingly quick sense. Horowitz says, “While it might take you a full second to notice something out of the corner of your eye, turn your head toward it, recognize it and respond to it, the same reaction to a new or sudden sound happens at least 10 times as fast.” He describes hearing as our “alarm system” evolving over time to protect us even when the danger is out of sight or we are asleep. Our auditory system is a thing of wonder, having built in “volume control” to tune out the unimportant noises and alert us to the ones that could possibly be dangerous or rewarding. This is why you can be sitting in your home with the TV blaring and kids screaming and still hear a slight knock on the door. When you hear one of these sounds that your auditory system deemed important enough for you to know about, “attention” takes over.
Check back soon for Part 2!