It occurred to me some time ago that when we refer to sound, we talk about hearing, and we talk about listening – but we don’t talk that much about understanding.

Do we hear, listen, or understand?

That is the question, and we do not ask that question to our patients enough.

Oftentimes, we don’t make it clear that there are very subtle and yet significant differences between what hearing is, what listening is, and how important those two components are in terms of our understanding.

In this comprehensive article, I will not only clarify those issues, but in some way also help you to help yourself better define what it is to understand and not just hear or listen.

My philosophy in life has been always the more I know, the better I understand, the more tools I have to help myself to solve and resolve issues.

So, in that vein, I’d like to start by going through what is hearing, listening, and understanding – and how it all relates.

What Is Hearing?

When you come in and you have a hearing test, it creates a basic awareness of the fact that there is a presence or absence of a sound. This is where you listen to a sound without really giving it any specific consideration to content.

So, it’s a very primitive form of being aware of the presence of the sound.

Now, how important is this?

Well, it becomes very important when you have a hearing deficit because your awareness and your neuronal information that is carried by the sound does not leave the same imprint in your auditory pathways or in your memory pathways.

So, the caveat here is that poor hearing will compromise our ability to know a presence of the sound and how important it is.

If you think about it this way – the presence or absence of the sound or the presence of some sound can indicate the danger.

So, our ability to hear that something’s going on around us is very crucial in our survival, in our reactivity pathways, and in our emotional pathways. This is because hearing sounds provokes and evokes all those different reactivities that need to take place to be able to react to the given sound.

Loss of hearing then becomes very crucial.

If you don’t hear something well, your subconscious is going to become uncertain about the environment.

What Is Listening?

We’ve spoke about hearing. Now, what is listening?

Listening as well as hearing are two skills that not only we have but all living animals also have.

Listening becomes a very important skill because, again, it’s responsible for our survival.

So, imagine that we have all different trains that come through our brain. One train comes from our ears, one from our eyes, and another train comes from our nose.

So, there are a lot of trains that are competing to get to the final station – the brain’s station, and this is where our listening skills are referred to as attention control networks.

There is some subconscious mechanism that decides which of those neuronal trains is considered most important, and it’s always based on the most primitive form of which is the most important to us, which is survival.

 Advice On Hearing Healthcare

So, for example, a restaurant is a place where most of the people who have a hearing deficit and wear hearing aids run into a problem because the noise level is annoying.

Where speech-related sounds might be extremely pleasant, our attention is often focused more on the sound that is causing the annoyance – so, the background noise that interferes the speech that we want to hear.

From a survival point of view, that sound is going to receive the priority and it’s going to go to your auditory brain and take up more space than it deserves to have.

This is where our attention control networks come in.

If, however, we can switch the tracks of the trains and allow the train that carries information that’s supposed to be most important, yet is driven by our emotions, we can regain this ability to really listen.

Essentially, in these situations, we must try to only concentrate on what we think is most important and not allow those other interrupting sounds to take priority. Then we will become better at listening.

To summarize listening here – it is the ability to switch the train onto the right track.

Oftentimes, I know that this is going to be difficult, but “knowing” places us in an advantageous position because we anticipate the annoying sound and inadvertently, we’re going to give this more attention.

The more attention we give it, the louder the sound becomes.

The more I look at the bright light in a dark room, the brighter the light becomes. If I look at it less, then the light is not as bright. So, the skill of being able to redirect your attention becomes extremely important.

With uncorrected hearing loss, all those people who are in a situation like this are in a difficult situation. Not only that, but not hearing well allows other trains from other sensory modalities to take over our cognitive skills.

If I don’t hear well, and I can see well, then I am going to look at something and process that information rather than try to hear something that I’m not hearing well.

Getting hearing aids and allowing your hearing to be improved increases your ability and gives you a better chance to listen better. After you listen better, you’ll be able to hear better, too.

I have an example here.

If I was preoccupied doing a puzzle and if somebody were to come in and start talking to me, I might not hear it – because my attention control networks are just on the task that I’m doing right now.

Something very interesting to know that if my wife were to come in and start saying something, my attention-control networks, which are responsible for my survival, would right away take me to my wife because I know what’s more important – since I have been married for more than 50 years.

This is what my attention control networks should do.

But on the other hand, if you were to do a crossword puzzle and then a mosquito was in the room and you heard the mosquito buzzing, your attention control network would go to the mosquito.

Especially if you had some bad experience previously of being bitten by mosquitoes. The attention control skills become very crucial in our ability to hear what we need to hear as long as we can somehow convince our brain system that this is more important.

I was explaining to one of my patients recently that one of the things that I recommend when you go into a restaurant or any situation where you know there’s going to be a lot of different clutter or a lot of people talking at the same time – before you start your conversation with your friends or whoever – take about 30 seconds or so to absorb all the sounds that are in the room.

This way, they become less of an annoying sound but a more friendly sound that you become more familiar with.

Because of this, your attention control networks are not going to be significantly drawn to those annoying sounds, because it’s going to be in some way something that you’ve already exposed yourself to.

Advice On Hearing Healthcare

How Does Our Brain Process What We Hear?

Through defining what hearing and listening are, we come to the final stage which becomes important to only one species on this planet – which is understanding, which is what we do with and how we process all the information we hear and listen to.

If we go back to the train analogy, when we consider where our understanding is developed, we get to the final station, which is our cognition.

In the cognition part of it is the auditory brain, but there’s some other parts of our brain that also take part of the riving and processing of auditory information.

Here’s a very good example.

If you have someone with a British accent – somebody who is speaking with your native tongue, versus somebody who has a foreign accent, this can present an issue in how you process what they are saying because there is a lack of what’s called predictability.

Your brain learns words and how they relate to each other, which helps you to know what to expect when you hear a certain word.

Let’s say if you hear a computer, your brain will predict what the words should sound like. So, if it’s with a foreign accent, the prediction mechanism might be thrown off.

Then your brain will try to scramble to figure out what really was said. This scrambling prevents you from hearing and trying to process the information that came right after that.

Speech is not something that is very slow. It’s a very rapid channel information and once you start thinking or processing information, you’re losing the ability to follow the speech as it occurs.

We all have a decision-making process, which is based on our own facts and perception.
Our perception is something that dictates the way we “calculate” or process the information.

So understanding is something that is based on our hearing and our listening skills, which is based on our processing skills. As we grow older, our processing skills decline.

But we want to keep these skills as young and nourished as possible. One of the things you need to do that successfully is through your ability to hear.

Proper nutrition and physical exercise are also very important, but hearing plays a crucial role in our ability to continue to process information in the best possible way.

What Next?

I hope that now when you think about hearing in real world environments, it is going to be a more global process for you.

It’s no longer going to be a case of “Did I hear that?” but instead, you’re going to understand the importance of listening and giving attention to things that truly require your attention and not to what you perceive at the given moment to be important, which is often driven by our emotional system.

As one of the most respected, trusted, and influential hearing care experts in the US – I am here to help you better understand your hearing health and how better hearing supports better cognition and true understanding of interactions and environment.

To schedule an appointment or to find out more information, I’d be happy to help.

Call us at (475) 227-0842 – I look forward to speaking to you.

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Dr. Natan Bauman

For more than 40 years, I have had the honor and opportunity of helping thousands of local, national, and international people to achieve a better life through better hearing. As an audiologist and electronic engineer, I have changed the course of the hearing aid industry by inventing the Receiver-In-The-Canal, the most widely used hearing aid in the world. Additionally, I established a tinnitus and sound over-sensitivity clinic and developed a special treatment program which I have been teaching to other practitioners nationally and internationally. Our practice follows the key principles that have defined my career: an adherence to best practices, use of the latest technologies, and personalized care in which the patient is treated as family.

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