Julian Treasure: I really want to thank Manuel. He’s put a sound guy on the stage in one of the world’s greatest concert halls. How happy am I! Fantastic! What a building!
I’d like to invite you for the next few minutes to listen, but in a different way perhaps to the way that you’re used to listening. My slide didn’t advance. Now it has, thank you. We have four modes of communication and if you ask people in research, almost everybody will say the most important of those four modes is in fact listening. There are two outputs, two inputs, two to do with the spoken word, two to do with the written word, but listening is what people always say is the most important one.
So let’s take a look at listening and just look at how much time we spend, of that communication time, that we spend, roughly 60 percent, depending on what you do and how much you’re involved in listening in your job, but up to 60 percent of that time is spent listening, and yet our listening comprehension is just 25 percent. In other words, three quarters of what I am saying to you will just go out of the room. Sadly, I’ll do my best, but this is true all the time in our spoken conversation. We lose three words out of four. We’re not very good at it are we? Could be a problem.
I’d like to ask you to consider what actually is listening. You may not have thought of this before. It’s obvious, isn’t it? It’s like with seeing, there’s looking. It’s an active form of the sense. With hearing, there’s listening. But what is it? How would you define it? I’d like to offer a definition to you. And it’s a very broad definition, but I think it’s a good one. Listening is making meaning from sound. That’s all the sound that surrounds us all the time. Not just conversation, and if that’s what listening is, behind that, there’s a fairly significant process.
It’s a process that’s got three stages. The first stage is a physical stage. Sound waves hit your eardrum, that’s deep inside your head. This is very intimate. It’s physical. Sound touches you right inside your head. Also, incidentally, your whole body is listening. So sound vibration is touching you all over. The second phase is that those physical contact. That turns into electric chemical activity, which results in neurons firing off in your brain. Now those two stages really, I would say are more about hearing than about listening. The third stage is where the listening really happens and that third stage is mental. Now if you think that there’s not much mental activity, you’re just listening to what’s going on.
Let me show you a long list of the things that we do in our minds to listen. There are three classes, first of all there’s pattern recognition. This is a very important trick that our minds use in order to listen to the world. There’s a well known effect called the Cocktail Party Effect. (Cocktail party sound starts). So if I’m talking to you, in a party, where there’s noise like this going on in the background, it’s quite hard to listen to the sounds sorts. And actually, that gets harder as your get older. I don’t like parties like that anymore because I find it really hard to hear what people are saying without doing this and looking like a very old person.
The second trick that we use in order to extract information is differencing. This sound is pink noise (pink noise sound starts) and if I were to play this noise at a slightly lower level, for five or six minutes, you would actually cease to hear it. Your brain would just say ok. I know what that’s doing. I’m not listening to that anymore. They play this in offices as masking sound and people just cease to hear it all together unless you turn it off.
And the third and very important aspect of the mental process of listening is filters. There are a long list of filters that we employ and they start with your culture. We heard a little bit of wonderful Portuguese culture and the sound that people are making earlier on, but right from your culture, for example, I don’t know if any of you know any Fins, the Fins have a different attitude to silence to any other nation I know. They love it, their idea of a good time is to go around to everybody’s house sit for three hours in silence and go home. I love the Fins because they do really relish that peace and that silence. Language itself is a huge filter for what we can listen to.
In some Sub-Saharan languages their tonal, so it’s just the tone of voice, which indicates, positive, negative. Even past and future are indicated just by tone of voice. So there’s a long list of the filters, your values, your attitudes, your beliefs, your expectations going into a situation very often determine what you hear. What you listen to and what you don’t and intentions, so important with sound. And if you think that you can’t change sound with your mind, I want to give you a demonstration of something called a cross-modal effect.
So I want you to look at the guy on the screen very carefully and then tell me what he’s saying. (Video of a man saying “baba” repeated over and over). “Dada” yes? Close your eyes. (Video of a man saying “baba” repeated over and over). You can try it again, open your eyes. (Video of a man saying “baba” repeated over and over). You can’t override that. Your eyes are changing what you hear. That’s an effect called the McGurk effect in and thanks very much to Professor Masser for that excellent demonstration of it. So wasn’t that an audio illusion and sound effects you’ll taste as well there are lots of things happening all the time between senses.
This is an experiment done by Charles Spencer at Oxford University where they boosted the frequency 55 kilohertz in a pair of headphones to people eating crisps and the response was people said the crisps were actually crunchier in their mouth because the frequency had been boosted. So the senses are affecting each other all the time, but we have a problem. The problem is we don’t listen.
I’m really absolutely with Ernest Hemingway in this one. Most of us never listen. We get by just barely conscious of the sound around us and there are reasons for this. We invented writing some thousands of years ago and now the premium on listening is not so great. And if you want to go to sleep now, you can watch this talk on the TED X Youtube channel later. So we don’t have to be so present. In the old days, if you missed it, you missed it.
But secondly, I think there’s a cultural thing going on. You may be familiar with the Chinese duality of Yin and Yang. Yin being female, receiving, dark, moon, lots of those kinds of words. Yang being male, much more about sending, light, and heat and so forth. If I substitute audio words for those two, I think you might agree with me that in our culture now we’re much more fond of telling than we are of listening. And if you have a whole lot of people telling, you end up with a world that looks like this and sounds like this. (Sound of lots of people talking). It’s a noisy, unpleasant place with a lot of people shouting to try and be heard.
And it’s no surprise that people take refuge in these. (Noise of loud headphones). Now I’ve talked in the another TED Talk about the health effects of headphones. I don’t want to cover that here, what I want to cover is the social effect of headphones. Of this kind of personal stereo because we take, and here’s the big blue, social space like this, or like a train station or like a train carriage where we used to listen to each other to some degree. And we’ve turned it into this. Thousands and thousands, millions and millions of little personal sound bubbles. Nobody is listening to anybody in that situation and there’s an effect to that on society I believe.
There are some other aspects which are degrading our listening. First of all, we don’t have any patience anymore. We don’t want oratory, we want sound bites. We don’t listen to albums anymore, we listen to tracks. We don’t want to watch TV programs, we channel them. Patience is very very short in supply these days and our media are shouting at us. Unless somebody really writes it big, “outrage” or “shock” we’re not bothered. And our listening is becoming desensitized and degraded so it’s very hard for us to hear the quiet, the subtle.
Children are very happy if they have got two or even three sources of stimulus happening at the same time. One they’re bored. So there are several issues that are happening with our listening and I do believe that we are in danger of losing our listening and I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a world where nobody is listening to anybody because that way lies prejudice, judgment, violence, and even war. Listening is an antidote to all of those things so this is important.
So how do we get from that problem to a solution? Well I’d like to give you some little exercises. This is like a gym for listening I’m going to give you now. Some little exercises that you can take home with you, which will improve your listening no end. The first of those is this (silence). It’s rare to find silence in the modern world. Do try to find a few minutes everyday. It’s like a sorbet in a meal. It resets your ears, recalibrates you and allows you to hear the quiet. Again, just a few minutes of silence everyday.
Second is an exercise I call the mixer. Next time you’re in a noisy café like this. (Noisy café sound plays). Try and isolate how many separate sounds like channels of a mixing desk you’re listening to. How may people, how many different voices, how many baristas bashing on the counter. You can do it in lovely quiet environments like this as well. How many birds can I hear? How many individual ripples? You should really picture that recent mixing desk. It’s a great exercise for becoming acute with your listening.
The third one is savoring. Just like this guy is savoring his cup of coffee, we can say there are lots of normal sounds, regular sounds, even boring, mundane sounds. Here’s one I recorded just before I left. (Sound of tumble dryer plays). This is my tumble dryer at home. It’s quite groovy. I mean I could put a track on top of that or here’s another one which I’ve recorded in quite high fidelity and just listen to this simple kettle. (Sounds of kettle boiling). Wow there is richness in many sounds around us, and this is about hearing the hidden choir and you can do this all the time with sounds around you.
The fourth exercise is listening positions. I’m going to give you six very quickly. I’ve positioned them as parallel opposites. They’re not really and there are lots more that you could play with. First of all, there’s active listening. This is used in the caring professions a great deal and it’s around the question, “What I hear you say is?” “What you said is?” It’s reflecting back what somebody said and it leaves them feeling heard. At the other end of that scale, passive listening. This would be a zen master sitting by a stream. No intervention going on at all. Just listening. Beautiful.
Then we’ve got critical listening. This is what most of us do most of the time. Is that right or wrong? Do I agree with it? Do I disagree with it? Is it stupid? Is it wise? You’ve been doing that all day today as you assimilate TED input and let me tell you, you have to give up at some point. It’s not possible in a TED environment.
At the other end of that scale, we’ve got empathetic listening. This is where you just be with that person. You go into their island. You try and live their life and let them feel not just heard, but understood. And the last two, slight gender stereotype and the research does back up that men and women listen in very different ways. Men tend to listen for a point. I call it reductive listening, so there’s an objective in the conversation. Women on the other hand tend to enjoy the conversation and it doesn’t really matter where it goes, particularly, which results in a lot of conflict because men get frustrated. “Where are you going with this?” And women feel cut off, “You’re not listening to me,” which is the most common complaint in any relationship.
Fifth and finally, I want to just give you an acronym to use in your listening to all of your relationships. I mean you’ll be one of these people. I’m sure this applies to all of us. The acronym is RASA, which is the Sanskrit word for juice and it also means an expression of emotion in Indian theater. And those letters stand for receive, so you go “oh, mhm, mhm,” eye contact, “mhm.” Appreciate, “really, oh,” really getting involved in the conversation. Summarize, the word “so” is very important here. “So what you’re saying is?” “So that means.” And ask, “Oh! What happened after that?” “What are we going to do next?” RASA, it’s very powerful and you’ll be much better in your listening with that going on.
Now that is the phenomenology of listening. I want to spend the last minute of my time talking about the ontology the beingness of listening. I mean what would it be to be listening. Not the listener. Not the sound source. The bit in between.
Think about this. Listening, places you in space. You can hear this room. You can hear the microsounds of the people around you, even with your eyes shut you know where you are. And even more importantly, listening places you in time because all sound is in time. There is no such thing as a sound photograph. An instant of sound means nothing. Sound is really, as far as I’m concerned, how we experience time, most keenly the line of time because of the sound going on around us. It’s a flow. The French philosopher, Jean Luc Nancy says, “Sonority is time and meaning.” Herman Hesse said, “Music is time made aesthetically perceptible.”
I would suggest ladies and gentlemen that listening is how we evoke the universe. And I’m a sound guy. I love to listen, but I’d like to suggest we can all turn this around the other way and listen to live. Without listening fully, we’re not living fully. We’re not connected to the physical world, the metaphysical world, and most important of all, to each other. And we’re not turning up that whole dimension in our experience of the world. So I just want to thank you for listening to me today.