Seth S. Horowitz is neuroscientist with a masters degree in Psychology and Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Brown University. He has worked in comparative and human hearing, balance and sleep research. His research has been funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, The Deafness Foundation, and NASA. He is currently the chief neuroscientist at NeuroPop Inc. His book, “The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind,” was published in September 2012. Providence Business News asked Horowitz to talk about how his research in hearing is opening up a new range of health care applications.
PBN: You recently wrote in The New York Times that we are in danger of losing the skill of listening because we live in a world of digital distraction and information overload. Why is that?
HOROWITZ: Our brains are remarkably quick at segregating signal (important information) from noise (less useful background), especially in hearing. But a problem emerges when you are bombarded by too much information.
Your brain starts discarding more and more incoming information to cope with the flow, consigning it to background and only paying attention to things that are either very familiar or really stand out.
PBN: How important is listening – and hearing – in the cognitive development of the brain? Are our brains being “rewired?”
HOROWITZ: All senses are important for brain development, but hearing in particular because much of what makes us human is so sound oriented. Fetuses begin hearing in the third trimester when their ears connect to their brains, and recent studies have suggested that infants get an early start on language acquisition by listening to their mother’s speech sounds while they are still in the womb.
Children who are born deaf have historically (and sadly, currently) often been labeled as developmentally disabled because they did not have their hearing tested, and have a much harder time picking up language.
And, as we go through life, the combination of learning when to combine attention and hearing gives us the skills to listen and pick out important information. With every new thing we are exposed to and attend to, we lay down new pathways in our brains to make picking up related information easier.
PBN: In health care, Dr. Douglas Eby, director of a medical center, asks his providers to learn to listen in 10 new ways when talking with patients. What do you think of this strategy?
HOROWITZ: Getting medical professionals to listen to patients can be a challenge. Doctors (and scientists) have their own vocabulary that is not usually common in day-to-day speech.
This can be a serious barrier to real communication, especially with something as important as health care.
Many doctors, when presented with a patient who has carried out self-diagnosis through web sources, are tempted to categorize them as hypochondriacs or problem patients because they may be using this specialized vocabulary incorrectly.
It is critically important for health care professionals to listen beyond the words and the sometime vague way people describe their health to try to get to the root of their conditions.
This would include not only getting their medical history, but their emotional state, listening to how they communicate with people in their families or support networks, and even the basic sounds they use in talking and at other times.
PBN: From a business perspective, how does the decreased capability in listening play out in the workplace and in the marketplace?
HOROWITZ: As business environments become more complex, there is a serious problem with information overload, especially when some of the information seems to only marginally affect the direct business environment and outcomes of the people involved.
When a small business with a small staff deals with known customers, it’s easier to maintain a more personal and listening-friendly environment.
Once businesses have to start interacting not only outside of the local area but across political and cultural boundaries, communication becomes so complex that it often breaks down. Poorly translated signs in hotels and venues may seem humorous but they are a symptom of substituting mechanical translation for real human communication.
The current focus on forming ever larger social and business networks may give someone a large collection of names and titles that they are vaguely connected with, but doesn’t really achieve much in the form of real social or business interaction.
There is a need for reinstating one-on-one listening skills between businesses and between business and their customers.
PBN: How important are the other senses – touch and smell, for instance – in the process of listening? What new research are you planning to investigate your findings?
HOROWITZ: As an auditory neuroscientist, I always thought of listening as hearing combined with attention. But the attentional centers of our brain interact with every other sense. It was musician Dame Evelyn Glennie who taught me that you can listen with your whole body.
Dame Glennie is largely deaf, but uses her sight, touch and balance senses to help her create space filling, powerful music. By combining any sense with attention, you can pick new subjects to pay attention to and enrich your life.
Right now I’m working with Lance Massey of NeuroPop Inc and Alex Doman of Advanced Brain Technologies to apply sound and music to health and wellness applications.
Because of the powerful interaction of hearing with many subconscious and cognitive functions of the brain, we’re beginning to look at a wide range of health care applications from increasing attention to reducing anxiety, all without recourse to drugs or major lifestyle changes.