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Mindful : August 2013
50K All 50,000 verte- brate animals can hear, but not all, such as cave fish, can see. “If you are standing by the road and a large truck goes by, do you hear the vibration or feel it?” Evelyn Glennie Glennie has worked to train her auditory skill in a different way, which she described in a 1993 essay. Sound, she noted, is simply vibrating air. The ear picks up the vibrations and converts them to electrical signals, which are then inter- preted by the brain. But hearing isn’t the only sense that can perceive those vibrations. Touch can, too. “If you are standing by the road and a large truck goes by, do you hear the vibration or feel it?” she asks. “The answer is both. For some reason we tend to make a distinction between hearing a sound and feeling a vibration. In real- ity they are the same thing.” The theory is controversial—most audiolo- gists, as Horowitz confirms, would say people hear with their ears, not their feet or necks. Yet he says that so strict a view ignores the fact that you can hear quite well by passing vibration through your skull, which in turn stimulates the inner ear’s hair cells. (That’s the basis of one type of hearing aid.) There’s also a great deal of evidence pointing to the brain’s “plastic” adaptation, where one sense is lost and another compensates. Blind people, for instance, often learn to map their environment with sound. As Horowitz explains, “They are building a 3-D world without their eyes. But it’s still spatial a nd what sighted people would think of as ‘seeing,’ if there were a way to map the blind person’s interna l map onto their own.” To be sure, whether you end up “hearing” with your ears or your feet, the difference re- mains on the margins of what Glennie, Horow- itz, and Lisle intend when they urge the rest of us to “just listen.” What they’re really talking about is a deliberate, aware way of going about life that they fear is becoming more rare. Frank Diaz, a researcher at the University of Oregon, has studied how meditation can improve our ability to appreciate music. As he described in the January issue of the journal Psychology of Music, he tested two groups of stu- dents who listened to a 10-minute excerpt from the opera La Bohème. The group that engaged in a brief mindfulness exercise beforehand found that it enhanced their experience. “If you’re a symphony player, you’ve probably played Beethoven’s Ninth 10,000 times. Your response is so habituated that you don’t get any pleasure out of it anymore,” Dia z told the web- site PsychCentra l. In contrast, he said, medita- tion seems to renew our enjoyment. Glennie is not a meditator herself. “ I’m not the sort of person who separates this out,” she says. “I don’t want to say to myself that I have to do five minutes of meditation or I’ll be in a worse state.” But she returns frequently to her belief that most people are becoming less conscious and purposeful in their lives—deficits she feels can be overcome with a thoughtful practice of listening. She wants people to know that “we do have a choice. We always have a choice. Sound is always all around us, and it’s amazing how we control how much we eat, what we see, what we smell, but somehow when it comes to listening, we’re bombarded in such a way that it’s not the same as with the other senses. “But we do have a choice. If you were to ana- lyze your day, would you be saying to yourself that this or that sound is totally unnecessary? Was this or that sound like indulging in a piece of chocolate—was it a fast-food sound? Really, I’m just suggesting we ca n control what we listen to and how we listen.” Brenda Gillian, Glennie’s long time assista nt, has seen this kind of focus in action. In Decem- ber 2010, the two climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in a group that Gillia n says included half a dozen disabled people, counting Glennie (who for her part ada mantly does not consider herself disabled). The goal was to raise £10,000 (about US$15,400) for Able Child Africa, a London- based cha rity for disabled children. During the six-day climb, Gillian recalls, the temperature dropped precipitously, f rom 95 de- grees to 13 below. The hikers slept inside small, cramped nylon tents that often had layers of ice covering them. Gillian already knew that Glennie was an un- usually driven person but mar veled at her deter- mination—and concentration. As they hiked up the mountain, Glennie kept her eyes on the path, politely ignored chitchat, and saved her breath to get to the top. “She’s disciplined in a way I don’t see in normally hearing people,” Gillia n says. “She’ll just focus and get the job done.” ● Katherine Ellison is the author, most recently, of Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention. See more of her work at katherineellison.com. ILLUSTRATIONBYMARIKOJESSE/PHOTOGRAPH©A2SATS/OCEAN/CORBIS August 2013 mindful 59 life