"Hearing" is defined by Webster's as:
1. the process, function, or power of perceiving sound; specify: the special sense by which noises and tones are received as stimuli.
The ear doesn’t simply “hear.” It collects and amplifies sound waves in the air or water (Okami, 2013). Audition alerts us to our surroundings, including potential danger, and facilitates communication. Objects vibrate, causing pressure changes in the air, or water, surrounding them. These subsequent pressure changes are the sound waves. These waves are converted by hair cells in the inner ear to neural signals. The signals travel along the auditory nerve, through the thalamus, to the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe where they are interpreted. To determine the location of sound sources, the brain uses differences in the speed and intensity with which sound hits the ear. Thus both ears are used to locate the source of sounds. This process that seems automatic and immediate to us as we go about our day is in fact intricate and complex.
I want to spend a little time on a population that communicates without sound waves: the deaf. In recently reading Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon, I need to emphasize that communication is not limited to those able to hear. There is communication, with associated community, culture, in the deaf community. Sign Language is a tool and an art. People who have come to identify with this community do not see lack of hearing as a loss. They see being deaf as part of their identity. There exists a richness and texture to their lives that would be have been missed if they had cochlear implants, devices that allow for the ability to hear.
Audition has a powerful capacity for expanding attention, awareness, and communication. Several tools outlined below can help you in a journey to broaden your sense of hearing. While you mindfully engage in focusing on the sounds in your environment (child chatter, bird song, tree leaves rustling), know there is a world full of depth, without sound.
1. Web based tools such as Pandora and Spotify help diversify and expand the music available. Before, one was limited to a themed record, tape, or CD maintaining a relatively consistent rhythm and melody. It is easier to increase variety. That said, for this ease and constant access, quality is often compromised. Digital audio such as MP3s, and use of ear buds, deteriorate the purity of the sound waves. This suggestion is two-pronged:
a. Experiment with use of music to change your mood. Use a web based tool such as Spotify or a CD in your collection. If feeling calm, experiment with inducing excitement with music. If feeling cheerful, play with use of a melancholy tune to observe the power of sound in affecting mood.
b. Access better sound quality than that available from digital audio. The playing device can also improve the accuracy and intelligibility of the audio output. Explore the layered textures possible to sound waves.
2. Explore the exotic. For you, that might be rap music, or classical. Or Emo. Or African tribal music or Gregorian chants. A good measure for determining what is unusual for you is to think of music that would make a good friend or lover’s jaw drop if they heard you listening to it. That is the music to explore today.
3. As I write this, the biggest storm in ten years is hitting Northern California. In listening to heavy rain, the wind an extended lyrical note, I’m transported to other times in my life when I’m tucked away safe, the weather just outside. Listen to the elements: what does wetness sound like? Pay attention to the notes of air as well as earth as you press into it with your feet.
4. Create sound. You might use a traditional instrument like a piano or guitar or drums. Or you might experiment. Tap your feet on the ground. Bring a spoon to the edge of a glass, playing the ware with different levels of liquids. Whistle!
5. As with smell, audition is associated with many things including memory, mood, and attention. In the process of broadening your experience with hearing, document which sounds bring up particular memories, which sounds, for you, induce a contemplative state, sadness, or excitement. Last, explore sounds or music that help to wake you up in the morning and help you maintain focus while at work. For example, I cannot listen to music with lyrics while I work and instead use classical and modern instrumental pieces. Otherwise I get caught in the messages and story lines.