Hear Here!

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The young boys in our neighborhood love fireworks, and the best time of year for them is just around the corner. 

Starting in warm April evenings just after dark, they begin to rehearse with a few repercussive rounds in the park behind our house. Last night, a few went off in the wee hours of the morning, and in the couple minutes it took me to get back to sleep, I wondered about how it is that our sense of hearing stays “on”  all the time—even as we doze.

Seth Horowitz, a neuroscientist at Brown University whose book “How Hearing Shapes the Mind,” explains in detail the amazing circuitry that shapes our capacity to hear. 

During sleep, hearing is still at work, the brain using an exquisitely sensitive volume control so that attention gets called only to certain sounds and noises.

For example, I may not notice a door closing in the house if I know other people are supposed to be home, but if my sleeping mind knows no one else should be there, the alarm system wired into my sense of hearing causes that door creak to awaken me. Hearing is a faster sense than vision. It takes a full second to respond to something seen out of the corner of your eye, but hearing something that goes fireCRACKer in the night gets a response ten times faster. 

So if our hearing is so great, why do we hear so many people say, “You never listen!”

In my office, couples who are working through a glitch, and teenagers and their parents, say those words to one another a lot. The problem isn’t that the desire to listen is missing, it’s that being a good listener, or an active listener, is really hard work, and not everyone knows how to do it.

Active listening requires two things from us:  Attention and intention. We have to turn the volume down on those things that compete for our attention and distract us, and turn up the “volume” on the attention we pay to the person who’s speaking. Since we only remember between 25 to 50 per cent of what we hear, most of us walk away with only half of our daily conversations in our pockets.

Listening well is a talent that has to be practiced. To be better requires a conscious choice to understand the complete message you hear. The brain gets excited so easily, especially the emotional center, which encourages us to react or defend ourselves before we’ve heard the whole message. Don’t form counter arguments, statements, or even reassurances while you’re trying to listen. Attend to the speaker with your full attention. Silently repeat the words you hear as they’re being said to you, and wait until the speaker is finished before asking questions.

None of this means that there aren’t times when you might lose focus or feel too bored to listen well. It’s not criminal to be real and just tell someone that this is not be the best time for you, and offer some alternate times to listen. 

In 2003, David Issay founded the “Story Corps” project, in which thousands of Americans  record conversations with a loved one in which a question is asked, and listened to. In addition to being archived in the Smithsonian, the collection has been made into a book, “Listening Is An Act Of Love,” by Issay.

I really like the title, and believe it’s true.  You give of yourself in the truest most selfless way every time you set aside all of your mental machinery for a few minutes and really tune your ears in to someone you love.

Hear every word—it really is an act of love.

 Ruth Wimsatt is a psychologist practicing in Newport Beach and can be reached at (949)222-3285 or at [email protected].


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