Do We Hear In Our Ears Or In Our Brain?

The interaction between sound and hearing is very complicated. If I tap on my desk once every second you will hear this as a rhythm. If I tap on my desk two hundred and fifty six times a second you will hear a music note, the middle C. I’m doing exactly the same thing, only faster, yet we experience completely different effects, either a rhythm or a musical note.

Researchers interested in this experimented on animals by disabling parts of their brains. They found that it is not the physical nature of the stimuli that effects what we hear but how the brain interprets it and that this process takes place at a relatively high cognitive level.

This is supported by the McGurk effect that demonstrates that what we hear can be influenced by what we see. For this to happen, hearing must take place in parts of the brain that combine multiple stimulus.

The implications this has for dyslexia, which has a strong auditory elements, are significant. If hearing is seen as a neurological activity then hearing can be learnt just like anything else. In phonic reading programmes such as the Cumbrian Modified Reading Intervention, this is what is happening. The pupil is learning to hear the difference between the sounds. It also possible that sound therapy (e.g. the Tomatis Method) may work by triggering a child’s auditory learning process.

The big question is then ‘What is the best way to teach people to hear?’. Certainly singing and other musical activities must work because they require the performer to hear themselves. However learning to sing is difficult as it involves coordinating multiple activities, e.g. reading the words of the song, listening to the backing track, controlling your vocal cords and the shape of your mouth. Such a complicated activity is a real challenge for a dyslexic.

A quick, passive system such as sound therapy where the child just has to sit still for twenty minutes a day for two weeks would be ideal. However its not proven that it works and if it does work, we don’t know why or how.

The teaching method must also be cheap and practicable. A system that involves expensive equipment or highly trained teachers is never going to reach the millions of children in our schools who need it.

If we can find an effective way to teach people to hear, we will go a long way to tackling dyslexia and the social and mental health problems that all to often follow it.

Abstract: Cortical and subcortical sides of auditory rhythms and pitches.