Do you still remember how hearing works? It is most likely all you can recall is that little school lesson about the eardrum vibrating to sound waves and essentially turning those vibrations into signals for the brain to process.
However, if that is all you know of how hearing works, then is should not shock you to have even less knowledge about how listening works.
This can be a very serious issue. Contrary to popular opinion, a person with listening difficulties might actually be in need of professional diagnosis just as much as a person with physical hearing problems.
Good listening is not some vague, psychological concept. Surprisingly this misconception is often summed up by the popular quip: “You hear, but you don’t listen!” It assumes that proper listening requires courtesy, compassion and the willingness to hear someone out.
While that’s all well and good, there is actually a more technical process in the brain responsible for listening. It is this process that integrates with the equally technical process of the eardrum and its surrounding components.
Here is a quick review of both processes to illustrate:
The process of hearing begins not with just the ear itself but with sound. Sound is generally a wave of pressure that travels across objects and causes vibrations.
The eardrum, as you know, reacts to these vibrations and begins the ossicular chain. Its named after the three, special bones called ossicles: the hammer, anvil and stirrup.
The mechanisms of the ossicles then transmit the vibrations further into the inner ear. This is where the cochlea is located. It is the cochlea that holds the very important job of turning those vibrations into electrical signals: the very sort of signals that the brain can then interpret.
And in addition to that, the body also has secondary forms of hearing through the form of bone conduction, where other skeletal structures near the inner ear create their own vibration and also generate signals in the cochlea.
Though out of all these parts, the cochlea is widely regarded as the most complex, housing the numerous cells responsible for detecting specific vibrations that trigger the signals.
More impressive, however, is that this little part of the ear manages to do all its work yet also does so without any conscious effort on your part.
As long as your ears are properly functioning and the world around you continues to produce sound, you will always hear everything even when you think you are ‘tuning it out.’
Speaking of tuning out though, the process of focusing on a particular source of sound is pretty much the same one you use when truly listening to someone talking to you.
Granted, the field of studying exactly how the brain does this is relatively new compared to the field of studying physical hearing. However, this field exists. The subject of cognitive hearing has been the object of much research since as early as 2008 and it has even had a tremendous impact on people with cognitive disabilities like autism, auditory processing disorder, dyslexia and more.
Based on what is known so far, the process of listening makes heavy use of what is known as executive function. These are essentially a collection of mental processes that allow you to control your behaviour and perform focused tasks. These include impulse control, working memory, adaptive thinking and more.
At this point, it is clear that understanding the process of listening is to go beyond knowing that your ears are just autonomously reacting to sound waves from the environment. On the other hand, it is not necessarily about vague notions of a person’s mindset or emotional behaviour (though they can be a factor).
It is very likely that a person with listening problems can actually be suffering from some of cognitive disability. Always be aware of this because it is the first step to getting that person the help they need!
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