Learning to Listen

Contributed by: John Braverman, SJ, Assistant Professor of Biology, St. Joseph’s University

This summer, the cooling system in my building was being repaired. So certain fans and vents were turned off. I immediately noticed the difference, since I was sitting in a silent office for a change. Well, at least the background noise was not dominated by the constant blowing of air through a vent. I was then able to really listen, to really hear, my own thoughts as well as the other more subtle sounds around me. I value the chance to sit and listen, and I wish I could do it more often. Now an article in the New York Times reminds us of the value of listening—an “art” and a “science.”

The author, Seth Horowitz, is a neuroscientist. One of his points is probably familiar to most people: “Listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload.” Listening is so valuable to Horowitz as a way to experience the richness of life. But the article has many other more subtle—and scientific—points. Horowitz distinguishes between hearing and listening. He contrasts hearing and seeing. Apparently, hearing is a quantitatively faster sense than seeing.

In my own experience with bird watching, I definitely experience a premium on the ability to attentively listen. At some point, I realized that I was no longer able to rely on sight to identify birds, since they are often hiding. So I started to use iPhone apps to learn bird calls. For example, I used a neat and simple app by iSpiny called “Chirp USA.” Not only is this app a reference, but it also offers training by way of self-quizzes. Getting more curious about bird calls in my yard, I even used my phone to record a house wren’s singing in my yard (see clip below). I can play that even when stuck in my office with the noisy vent!