Hearing - A Journey Through Life - Part 3

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Your hearing is an integral part of your day-to-day life. It is constantly there with you. When you wake, when you work, when you eat, when you relax, when you sleep. Your ears are switched on 24 hours a day, they don’t rest. 

They work to enable you to communicate, learn, understand and take part in the rich tapestry of daily life.

We often take for granted the role that hearing plays, but when we take a moment to consider it's role then you understand it's importance. How you, almost unknowingly, utilise your hearing throughout your life.

The simple act of talking to another person requires you to be able to hear their response. It’s basic communication. These interactions happen all day, every day with family, friends, strangers and colleagues.

Your hearing is important in deciphering the subtleties in speech. We all know that a sentence can be interpreted in many different ways, a slight inflection or emphasis on a particular word can alter the whole meaning of the sentence. Take the following sentence as an example

“I never said she stole my money”

There are seven words in the sentence and seven different meanings to the sentence depending on which word you place the emphasis on.

I never said she stole my money”

“I NEVER said she stole my money”

“I never SAID she stole my money”

“I never said SHE stole my money”

“I never said she STOLE my money”

“I never said she stole MY money”

“I never said she stole my MONEY

The subtle emphasis needs to be apparent and your hearing needs to be able to detect this minute shift in the sentences delivery. These inflections in speech can portray emotions about the person speaking. Are they energised, angry, bored or tired? It’s not just hearing the words, it’s hearing the emotion in those words also.

Let us compare our ears to our eyes for a moment. The eyes can distinguish 150 hues of a particular colour - impressive. The ear can distinguish 1378 noticeable differences in a tone,. Just how sensitive is that? Vision can detect 15 to 25 events every second, that’s a lot of information to process in a very short time. By comparison the auditory system can detect 200 events every second, that’s lightening quick.

Try to think back to when you might have been in a really busy situation, something  like a noisy party, and all of a sudden your attention is drawn away to another conversation across the room as you’ve heard your name being mentioned. How do your ears manage to do this? Your ears are constantly working and analysing everything in that busy environment, even though your attention is on the conversation in front of you. Your ears and brain are working as a team to let you know that your attention may be required elsewhere. It’s pretty amazing that you are able to do this in a cacophony of noise.

Hearing plays an important role in many sounds that you hear throughout your life, when a child comes into this world, you hear their first cry, their first laugh and their first words. These are not just sounds, these are sounds that are linked to emotions and to specific events that occur through life’s journey.

The emotional impact of what you hear has quite an impact. Take a moment to think of an evening stroll by the side of a forest and hear an owl hoot or the hypnotic ebb and flow of the tide lapping on a deserted warm golden beach. The sounds you hear connect you to a place and a time of great joy. Sounds connect you to places and memories.

A timeless track by Simon & Garfunkel, The Sound Of Silence, always reminds me that there are two sides to hearing. What you hear and what you don’t. This contrast between sound and silence is also something to celebrate. Have you sat outside late one evening in the Summer and just listened? How quiet did it sound, how peaceful, how tranquil, how still? Silence is something to enjoy and appreciate.

Music plays such an important part in all our lives. Music can anchor a time, a place or experience into our minds. Music can make us happy or sad, it can lift our mood or relax us. It can energise you when you’re exercising. It can give you that feel good factor, that ‘hit of dopamine’. 

We all have that favourite song that reminds us of a good time, a song from when you were a certain age or a film you’ve seen that still resonates. The music we hear makes that emotional connection with our brain and memory.

Music can be used to invoke fear, tensioning shock. The screeching violins, violas and cellos from the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock thriller Psycho. Music can be used to invoke a feeling of love,  as in the film Titanic, where musical motifs from “My Heart Will Go On” are introduced in the “I’m flying scene” before the full track comes in at the end credits. The music we hear plays with our emotions and feelings.

The music used in television adverts that gets into our heads and stays there. The music used in jingles that we can still remember from when we were children. The impact of music in our lives is huge and our hearing is the gateway through which we have access to all this beautiful emotion.

Throughout life we experience a vast and varied tapestry of sound. The ears are our constant companion, that analyse and translate this soundscape into meaningful information. Information that allows us to communicate and feel emotion. Protecting and caring for our hearing is vitally important. Look after it well and it will continue to bring joy and laughter into your life.

Peter Jones - Clinical Audiologist