The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind
- Seth H. Horowitz
- 293 pp.
- October 11, 2012
The author combines autobiography, social context and scientific research to explore the everyday importance of sound in our lives
Reviewed by John R. Wennersten
Seth Horowitz, a neuroscience professor at Brown University, has spent over 30 years of his professional life listening to things. His new book, The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind, offers an engaging exploration on the extent to which what we hear dwells below conscious thought and the ways in which the presence of sound drives the evolution, development and day-to-day function of the mind. As one who lost his hearing in early childhood and later had it restored, Horowitz is intrigued by sound, which, he argues, is more important than sight in the cognition process. “Sound is our alarm system twenty-four hours a day. It is the only sensory system that is still reliable while we sleep.” Our other senses — vision, smell, taste, touch and balance — “are all limited in range and scope.”
Our sense of sound is part of a very old neuronal circuit to the brain, quick and mechanical. Thus, our highly developed sense of sound over time has helped human beings survive against predators, both animal and human. What is interesting to Horowitz about certain elements of sound is that they act as emotional and physical triggers, even when human beings have had no previous experience with such sounds. Further, he notes that the “sounds that evoke the strongest emotional response tend to be those from living things, especially other humans.”
Despite breakthroughs in auditory research, the exploration of the impact of music continues to be a scientific minefield. Although most of us have experienced the physically calming effect of music and its general impact on human behavior, music does not lend itself easily to scientific analysis. A major part of the problem is that scientists and others cannot seem to agree on what music really is. What is music to one culture may be horrifying noise or static to another. Music today is both a global and subjective experience. For Horowitz, the scientific exploration of music is still a cultural frontier. Perhaps that explains why he approaches his subject as both a research professor and a professional musician.
Suffice it to say that the only real area of agreement on music is that it is a diverse instrument for consumer manipulation. The success of the Muzak Corporation, which has been around since 1937, attests to the influence of “elevator music” in our lives. Another example of how music may be manipulated for an intended human response is that the Texas prison system pipes in Mozart to its inmates. And yet, according to Horowitz, music is little better as a calming influence than several minutes of silence. Furthermore, there is nothing in science to prove that listening to Mozart, or for that matter to any music, makes you smarter or a more sociable human being.
Yet there are times when we need sound to make significance of our surroundings. Hence, in a delightful chapter called “Sticky Ears: Soundtracks, Laughtracks and Jingles All The Way,” Horowitz illustrates our longing for sound even in outer space where sound does not exist. In science-fiction movies of the 1950s and ’60s, spaceships always went “whoosh.” Creators of space movies knew that a lack of sound would make viewers feel strange. That kind of discomfort is exactly the effect that Stanley Kubrick sought. Thus, in his 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the lack of sound took viewers “out of their normal environmental context and put them in a soundless void, bringing along all the tension and attention that silence carries.”
Similarly, television laugh tracks offer a kind of collective emotional bonding with viewers, and over the years they have offered a standard for manipulating the emotional response of audiences. Furthermore, as viewers today see films and television programs produced years ago, they may bond with audience laughter evoked by comedians who have been dead for years
These days we are tuning into a much wider natural and human world. Ultrasonic microphones let us hear things that we have never heard before. Lower orders of life, such as bullfrogs and bats, offer insights into ways to repair brain damage and auditory defects. The effect of vibration is also under scrutiny. Research has shown that with enough power, almost any part of the body will vibrate at specific frequencies. Such vibrations can range, with chronic exposure, from bone and joint damage to nausea and visual damage. But at this stage, according to Horowitz, sound is not yet a major weapon in the military arsenal of nations. It is just too difficult to use on human sensory systems.
Even though Horowitz occasionally wanders off into the scientific thickets, The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind offers laypeople a description of new thinking about sound and the role of sound in all aspects of society. The author has accomplished this through a pleasing mixture of autobiography, social curiosity and well-informed scientific research. We need books like this in the 21st century, with so many changes occurring around us medically and environmentally. The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind provides a tuning fork for human adaptation and survival.
John R. Wennersten is an environmental affairs writer and emeritus professor of environmental history at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. His recent book, Global Thirst: Water and Society in the 21st Century, was published in April 2012 by Schiffer Publications.