We live so much in our eyes these days that we underestimate and undervalue our most potent and primal sense: hearing. Here are three reasons we should place hearing back on the throne as king of our senses.
1. Hearing is first in time.
Hearing develops at just 12 weeks after conception. Long before we have ears, we are hearing our mother’s heartbeat through every cell.
Even as adults we still hear through our whole bodies. We sense sound through our skin, bone and muscle. This is how percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie can hear with no ear function at all.
The cochlea, the engine of the ear, reaches adult size and functionality 18 weeks after conception. This is long before the eyes are effective. From that point we hear very well. We learn to distinguish our mother’s voice – as well as the reassuring three-time beat of her heart.
Sound comes first not just for human beings, but also for the universe. In the first 380,000 years of its existence the universe was an opaque plasma of photons, electrons and baryons. There was no light because matter and energy were one. And all the photons were bound up in the plasma. It wasn’t until the moment of decoupling when the expanding plasma cloud cooled to 3,000 degrees Kelvin that the photons were released and light came into existence.
But there was sound before this decoupling because the plasma was a medium and there was plenty of vibration going on as the universe expanded unimaginably quickly, but not evenly. Had humans been able to survive then, they would have heard the sound of the universe being born long before light existed.
2 Hearing is first in space
Sight is a directed sense. With our binocular vision we see in a cone in front of us, approximately 180 degrees wide and 120 tall.
Hearing, by comparison, is completely spherical. Anyone can place a sound in three dimensions. We have no ‘deaf spot’ because hearing is our primary warning sense. It is vital to our spatial awareness. When we close our eyes to sleep, our hearing carries on working. We have no earlids.
We discern a great deal about a space in a short amount of time from its acoustics. Even with our eyes shut we can perceive walls, solid objects, and size from the tiniest sonic reflections.
Our ears are also our organs of balance, telling us which way is up at all times. Hearing and space are intimately connected in a potent and authentic perceptive process. This is why there are few aural illusions, whereas the phrase ‘optical illusion’ is so familiar.
3. Hearing is sensitive
Human hearing can perceive a huge range of intensity, with a dynamic range of 130 dB. For example, the sound of a train horn at one metre has a thousand million times more power than the sound of a mosquito flying at three metres.
According to the University of Chicago, the average human ear can distinguish 1,378 “noticeable differences” in tone. By comparison we can distinguish 150 hues of colour.
Yet this is the amazing sense is being assailed by urban noise and headphone abuse. If we can rediscover how astounding this precious sense is, we will start to value and nurture it. And that would make the world a very different place.