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Culture & Religion

The Beautiful Neuroscience of Listening

Neurological research shows that brains process auditory information ten times faster than visual cues, but our ability to truly listen is being put at risk by digital distraction and information overload.

What’s the Latest Development?

While we tend to think of our world as a series of visual cues that demand our attention, our ability to hearand later, to listenis a quantitatively more spectacular experience, says Brown University neuroscientist Seth Horowitz: “While it might take you a full second to notice something out of the corner of your eye, turn your head toward it, recognize it and respond to it, the same reaction to a new or sudden sound happens at least 10 times as fast.” Horowitz says hearing has evolved as a more essential tool for survival than sight. 

What’s the Big Idea?

The modern world of sound—and more often, noise—is being overrun by digital distraction and information overload, says Horowitz. Yet listening, which meanings giving attention to sound, “tunes our brain to the patterns of our environment faster than any other sense, and paying attention to the nonvisual parts of our world feeds into everything from our intellectual sharpness to our dance skills. … The richness of life doesn’t lie in the loudness and the beat, but in the timbres and the variations that you can discern if you simply pay attention.”

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