Making sense of a sense of hearing

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BY CONOR KILKELLY 

When faced with the ludicrously unfair ultimatum of keeping either your sight or your hearing, what would you choose? If, for you, sight is more scared, you're not alone. A recent survey undertook by medicineNet.com found nearly half of Americans worried more about losing their sight than “losing their memory or their ability to walk or hear.”1 No wonder, when posed such a question the mind drifts to a future where bumping one's knee off coffee table corners is commonplace, where guide dogs lead us astray, and not even the smiles of our loved ones or the sight of a setting sun could cheer us up. Surely a life without sound pales in comparison to a life without vision? Before you commit to a soundless life, here are a few arguments that will make you reconsider how a sense of sound and a sense of self correlate. 

 

What is Hearing, Really? 

Prof. Christopher J. Plack, defines a sense of hearing in his recent publication on the topic of hearing as “obtaining information about the world using the pressure fluctuations in the air (i.e. sounds)”.2 Describing sound as pressure fluctuations of air seems, at first, oddly counter-intuitive, that is, until you actually try to define sound yourself without synonyms like “noise”, or “tones” or just saying, “well, y'know, sound” with a lot of gesturing toward the ear. Tom Waits once described songs as “really just interesting things to be doing with the air”, and strangely enough that's pretty concise. Wind is felt, heard, and can even be painful or deafening when at high gale. The act of whistling, though, can entertain or soothe through repetitive tones with a melodic quality. The difference, then, between the sound of a roaring wind and the sound of well whistled tune is that pleasure and contentment is more readily sourced from the latter, when there's a clear human connection.  

 

The Wonders of the Womb

In a previous article we examined how the the rhythmic sounds of a beating heart, a pulse and the mummers of a mother can be heard as a fetus grows within the womb. The comforting sensation of knowing one's mother is living and breathing literally so you can live is a lasting, albeit subconscious, feeling not to be underestimated in its affect on the psyche in later years. Hearing the heartbeat of a loved one cuddled up close gives a sense of easement not easily bettered. As a result of this natural affection for the rhythmic patterns of life, the article argued all forms of music, and even the repetition of waves owe their pleasurable allure to this early sense of hearing, feeling the healthy workings of the inner material body.  What's more, this sense of utter contentment occurs long before a infant even opens its eyes, let alone sees.  

 

The Animal Who Gave Up Sight    

Consider the naked mole rat, (which I recommend and assume you do at least 2-3 times a week...), a critter who's utterly blind and spends the majority of its time held up underground. This hopelessly horrific looking animal can burrow and create a impressive system of tunnels, with areas specific for sleeping, defecating, and no doubt catching up on the latest gossip from the community of equal ugly as sin fellow mole rats. Sound is the animal kingdom's greatest asset when it comes to evading threats. A tramped twig, a warning call, a cry, a smacking of a salivating tongue are heard far sooner than a predator shows itself-  usually only when it's already too late to act. A mole rat has a sense of smell and touch so attuned to his dark environment the eyes have evolved useless over time. Perhaps best of all, since evolution took away this sense, mole rats will never realise how ghastly looking they truly are. Evolution, too, has a lot to answer for when it comes to the human tendency to disregard the beauty of hearing.          

 

Speech: The Newbie of Human Evolution   

When considering this frightfully high statistic of people who value sight more than any other sense, it is odd to think that perhaps the most uniquely human trait ever evolved is one so readily disregarded. Evolutionary scientists estimate that homo sapiens developed a speaking language merely -evolutionary speaking- 100,000 years ago. Before that we relied on grunts, cries and groans to get any point across. When night fell all gestures apart from reaching out and grabbing another went unpercieved as the fire dwindled. With the invention of speech, plans could be made under the cover of darkness and human evolution went from a sprout to a sprint – quite literally overnight. Brain size expanded, and the modern mind was born. Essentially, therefore, what it is to be human, is the by product of one ancient chatterbox, interesting and charismatic enough that other prehistoric peoples took the time to decipher, and adhere meaning to, the oral shapings of his or her tongue. Knowing this, it would be a crying shame when faced with the ultimatum of losing your hearing or your sight if you didn't hold yours long enough to consider one thing. You're only human, but there is a sound reason why.