The importance of attentive listening

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Article Date: 
Dec 10 2012, 2140

Seth S Horowitz, an auditory neuroscientist at Brown University, who writes for The New York Times holds that, “The difference between the sense of hearing and the skill of listening is attention”.
He claims that hearing is a vastly unacknowledged sense. We tend to think of the world as a place that we see; interacting with things and people based on how they are looked at. Studies have shown that conscious thinking takes place at about the same rate, as visual recognition, requiring a significant fraction of a second per event. But hearing is a quantitatively faster sense. It might take a full second to notice something around me, turn my head toward it, recognise it and then respond to it; the response to a new sound stimuli happens at least 10 times as fast.
For us, hearing has evolved as part of our alarm system. In fact, it operates out of sight and works even while we are asleep. Our auditory system has evolved a complex and automatic “volume control,” since there is no place in the universe that is totally silent. So in the course of our development, we have learnt to finetune ourselves to keep most sounds off. At the same time, if the sounds come to us as a dangerous or a wonderful signal, our ears can detect them within a kilometre.
There are different types of attention and they use different parts of the brain. The sudden loud noise that makes us jump activates the simplest type of listening: the startle. More complex attention kicks in when we hear our name called from across a room or hear an unexpected birdcall from inside a room. But when we actually pay attention to something we are listening to, whether it is our favourite song or the chirping of the parrot, a separate brain function is activated. Then the signals are conveyed to our cortex, part of the brain that does more computation and which lets us actively focus on what we are hearing and tune out sights and sounds that are not very important. Here, our brain works like a set of noise-suppressing headphones.
Hearing, in short, is easy. It’s our lifeline, our alarm system, our way to escape danger and pass on our genes. “But listening, really listening, is hard when potential distractions are leaping into your ears every 50,000th of a second — and pathways in our brain are just waiting to interrupt your focus to warn you of any potential dangers.” Horowitz adds, “Listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload.”
And yet we dare not lose it. Because listening tunes our brain to the patterns of our environment faster than any other sense, and paying attention to the non-visual parts of our world feeds into everything from our intellectual sharpness to our dance skills. Luckily, we can train our listening just as we can train any other skill. We can learn to listen to new music while jogging rather than familiar tunes. We can learn to listen to the voice of our companion — not only to the routine words, but to the sounds and emotions under them —fostering the intimate bond.
Inability to listen has also become “an epidemic in a world that is exchanging convenience for content, speed for meaning.” Horowitz adds, “The richness of life doesn’t lie in the loudness and the beat, but in the timbres and the variations that you can discern if you simply pay attention.” We need to listen to the others’ spoken and unspoken words. We need to listen to the silence of our own emptiness; to our own unspoken agonies and unexpressed yearnings.

(The writer is a professor of science and religion)