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Learning to hear – Do you need to relearn?

Posted Mar 20 2013 5:00am

Who taught you to hear?



Hearing (Photo credit: Keturah Stickann)


Most of us think of hearing as something you are born with, no need to learn how to hear.  Hearing can become more useful when it is trained just as any other sense. Hearing can also be lost through abuse.


In a previous post I talked about the need to turn the sound off sometimes and make sure we are noticing the nonverbal things in the environment. Now we need to talk about the use and misuse of sound. Most of the time we are so flooded by loud and constant barrages of sound that over time we tune the small and the soft sounds out. The result of this desensitization to sound is that we begin to only appreciate sound when someone is screaming.


As any married woman will attest, poor hearing is more likely to occur as a result of a lack of attention to what your partner is saying than from any organic hearing loss. Married men over time develop a special disability known as selective deafness.


Learn to pay more attention to sounds and you too can become an expert at hearing things other people miss. This may also keep you out of some relationship problems.


Life’s pleasures are often about what you have experienced before. If you grow up listening to one kind of music you will likely have a preference for that kind of music.


Music appreciation classes ought to be more than simply listening to a favorite song. We need to learn how to listen, what to listen for, as well as practice that listening. Someone who wants to become a musician needs to learn to listen to music in the same way a writer needs to read, to learn what is good and what is not.


Most of us hear sounds all the time but rarely have we had any training that have taught us how to make more out of that hearing. Two simple exercises can improve your ability to notice sounds and then to make use of what you hear.


1. The ticking watch.


Find one of those old fashion wind-up watches or alarm clocks. Wind it up and place it on a table. Listen for the pitch and tempo of the clock ticking.


Walk a few steps away. How does the clock sound now?


Continue to move away until you can no longer hear the ticking sound. Now move back a step or two until it becomes clear again. Practice this exercise a little each day. You will over time notice that you become sensitized to the ticking sound and will pick it out from other sounds even if you are quite a ways away.


Of course if you notice any problem in doing this exercise, if you can’t hear when you think you should or if you are not able to pick the ticking out from surrounding noise, consider seeing a doctor to have your hearing checked.


Most people will discover that by practicing they become more attuned to the sound of the clock and notice not just this clock but others throughout their day. (See my previous post on the expert effect for more on this topic.)


Good mechanics will often be able to tell from the sounds an engine makes what the problem is. They have become sensitized over time because they have needed to find a noise and then determine why this engine made a sound that other engines do not normally make.


Practice being sensitive to sounds and you will see that these small sounds are all around you every day. Become mindful of the sounds you live with.


Hearing exercise two


Find a place where you can hear others coming before you can see them. At work you may be able to hear footsteps before the person comes into view.


Pay particular attention to the footsteps coming toward you. Are they quick and vigorous or slow and plodding? Does this walker make a particular sound by putting more weight on the toes or the heal?


When this person comes into sight glance at them and their shoes. Over time you will find that you can recognize who is coming down the hall by the rhythm of their footsteps. With more practice you may find that you can identify the type of shoe the person is wearing even when you do not know that person.


Why is recognizing footsteps important or useful? By itself it may not be important unless you sell shoes for a living. But at times recognizing someone from their step may be useful. Becoming more aware of sounds can help to improve your memory and your thinking efficiency.


Repeated efforts to fine tune your hearing by the clock exercise or by attuning to the sound people make when walking will improve your ability to focus on sounds. Couple this with our earlier exercise on sitting and being aware of the information from all your senses and you will find that you are becoming more alive, more mentally efficient and that your memory for people and events has improved.


For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page . For information about my other writing work beyond this blog there is also a Facebook authors page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at


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