How often have you wondered how the brain processes sound? After all, that is what contributes to effective listening skills. Not that often. I guess. Why would you?
I know I didn’t.
At least, until I have stumbled across the research of Dr. Emili Balaguer-Ballester and her colleague Andrew Rupp of Heidelberg from Bournemouth University’s (BU). Their goal was to answer the following question…
What Affects How We Hear?
Do we hear sounds as they are, or do our expectations about what we are going to hear instantaneously shape the way sound is processed?
Through the use of computational neuroscience models, Dr. Balaguer-Ballester and his team intend to map the way that the brain processes sound. Here is the most interesting conclusion they have come to:
“Almost 80% of connections between central and pre-cortical areas during sound processing seem to be top-down i.e. from the brain to the auditory peripheral system and not bottom-up, which is perhaps unexpected,” he explains. “As sound comes from an external stimulus, it would be fair to assume that most of our processing occurs from what we hear, but that is apparently not the case. What your brain expects to hear can be as important as the sound itself.” – Dr Balaguer-Ballester
This is backed up by the fact that it takes hundreds of milliseconds for sound to be processed along the neurons from the ear to the brain, which does not explain how we can immediately recognize the sex of a speaker or identifying a melody after just a few milliseconds
More information: “Understanding Pitch Perception as a Hierarchical Process with Top-Down Modulation.” PLoS Comput Biol 5(3): e1000301 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000301
Does Your Mind Play Tricks On You?
Actually, it’s quite likely that you have already fallen victim to this phenomenon! It has happened to me dozens of time. Especially after a longer session of speaking some foreign language. I’m sure you KNOW the feeling!
Your brain switches into the “X language” mode. Suddenly, you hear some voices outside the window. Why the hell are they speaking Swedish?!!! Especially in Poland?! And why can’t I understand what they are talking about? What kind of dialect is it?!
Oh, wait. It’s not Swedish. It’s Polish. Damn you brain! Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me 60 times, I’m an idiot!
Possible Explanation Of This Phenomenon
It seems that the most plausible explanation is as follows – the brain is all about expectations and context. Have you ever noticed that when you learn something in one context, like the school, it becomes difficult to recall when that context shifts?
This is because learning depends heavily on how and where you do it: it depends on who is there, what is around you and how you learn.
It turns out that in the long-term people learn information best when they are exposed to it in different ways or different contexts. When learning is highly context-dependent, it doesn’t transfer well or stick as well over the years.
How Does It Affect Your Learning?
Here are some methods I have come up with which might aid your listening: (and here are over 20 more)
1) Browse dictionary before listening
Just browse. You don’t have to learn any words nor do you have to memorize them.
If you know in the advance what the programme/audition/episode is about, pay special attention to the vocabulary which might appear there. That is pure logic – it’s unlikely that you’ll need to know the names of herbs if you intend to watch an action movie.
Of course, the best possible dictionary which you might use for this purpose is a pocket dictionary. It’s very handy and it contains the most frequently used words and sentences.
So far this technique has been working really great for me! If you test it, make sure to let me know about the results!
2) Read the transcription before listening
It’s not always possible to do so. But there are some listening materials which facilitate this approach. For example podcasts or language programmes for beginners.
You can also read lyrics of the song before listening to it. This method is much more effective than just trying to figure out what your favorite artist is singing about. It’s also so much better than the awkward muttering “mmmnaaaahh” when you forget the lyrics.
That’s also a guarantee that you won’t butcher the song with the stuff you THINK you hear (read more about effective listening here)
3) Read the general outline of the thing you’re going to listen to
Watching TV series in original? Read an episode description beforehand! This way, you will know (more or less) what to expect. And as you have learned so far – it’s all about what your brain expects to hear!
You can find them on IMDB.
Just a word of warning! I’m sure you have heard many times the following piece of advice – watch movies / TV series with subtitles. This is the utter BS.
The ROTI (return on time investment) from this method is incredibly low. You’ll better off just listening to a random radio audition.
Whether you like it or not, our brains are NOT able to simultaneously follow the images, subtitles, sounds and a plot.
What’s more, following this piece of advice gives you the illusory feeling of understanding.
You usually concentrate on reading subtitles and start feeling that you understand most of the things happening on the screen. The bitter disappointment comes later when you try to re-watch the same thing without subtitles.
You have no damn idea what these funny figures on the screen babble about!
Why do I sound so sure? Because I’ve been there! Luckily, I came to my senses pretty quickly and realized that this method is, let’s not be afraid to use this word, absolutely useless.
One thing you should remember after reading this article is this:
What your brain expects to hear can be as important as the sound itself
If you want to acquire listening skills and get the most out of every minute of listening, you should always try to get familiar with the material you are going to listen to.
Do you have any other ideas how this fact might help others to improve their listening skills? Let us all know!