When you hear, your mind is elsewhere. Words go in and out, thoughts wander, ambience may be felt (the room is too hot or too cold), the attractive woman in the corner and the smell of cooking roast beef noticed, but the speakers words do not register.
We also hear the sound of waves, distant traffic, birdsongs, barking, the refrigerator humming, and the A/C turning off and on. Hearing is ambient and non-selective. There is nothing to listen to, only sounds which fade in and out of recognition or are marked by the brain as too intrusive or too alluring to ignore.
Sometimes silence is part of impression rather than the lack of it. The density and impenetrability of Conrad’s jungles are part of their intimidation and terror. As Marlow proceeds up the river to find Kurtz (Heart of Darkness) he says:
We called at some more places with farcical names, where the merry dance of death and trade goes on in a still and earthy atmosphere as of an overheated catacomb; all along the formless coast bordered by dangerous surf, as if Nature herself had tried to ward off intruders; in and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted man-groves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair. Nowhere did we stop long enough to get a particularized impression, but the general sense of vague and oppressive wonder grew upon me. It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for night-mares.
Sometimes we hear nothing. Tunnel vision coopts hearing. We can be so absorbed in writing or reading that all ambient sounds disappear. We hear nothing.
Listening on the other hand requires a high cognitive function. It takes attentiveness, interest, and patience. The listener ascribes value to the words of a speaker, wants to record, parse, and analyze them for meaning and intent. Each word spoken in delicate negotiations has its own meaning whether literal or figurative; whether stand-alone or part of a sentence or soliloquy.
Studies done with the hard-of-hearing show how listening is a function of many cognitive abilities which when applied can be fatiguing.
The role of memory, attention, and other cognitive resources is generally neglected when addressing impacts of hearing loss. But these cognitive skills play a huge role in how we hear, what we hear, and how quickly we can keep up during conversation. When an individual has hearing loss, the sound that reaches the brain is degraded.Biblical exegesis is nothing if not analyzing each and every word of Jesus Christ as recorded by the authors of the New Testament. The stories of the Gospel of John are highly symbolic and Jesus’ words are often perplexing to his listeners who must provide their own context, points of reference, and analysis to understand them.
This distorted sound is what leads to filling in the blanks and guessing what other people are talking about. However, the strain on the brain doesn’t end here. To compensate for these distorted signals, the brain reallocates its resources by placing a higher demand on cognitive skills, such as memory and attention, to understand and keep up with conversation. … This is why most people with hearing loss are tired after long conversations…(Neurotone)
For most people in most situations such highly-evolved listening/analytical skills are not required. We listen to our wives, husbands, mothers and fathers, and colleagues without having to pay much attention. In fact we have become very adept at filtering what they say according to what we need from them.
In the worst marriages husbands and wives simply occupy space. Both have decided long ago to pay no attention whatsoever to what is said. They have written each other off; and whatever is asked, yelled, or commented goes in one ear and out the other.
In most better marriages, husbands and wives do listen although highly selectively. When wives go on about their mothers’ ills or the money problems of great aunts, they could be speaking into a void for all the interest taken by their husbands. When husbands rattle on about the office, or the car, or little-known Shakespeare plays, they are no different than cold-callers – unnecessary, intrusive, and irrelevant.
Men are supposedly poor listeners, not interested in women nor in their concerns; yet this, like all stereotypes, is largely untrue. Women have as much selfish selectivity as men. When they have decided that what a man is saying has little or nothing to do with what is going on in their lives, they flip the switch to mute.
But of course we cannot pay attention to everything that a partner says. There has to be some scratching before the horse enters the gate. The amount of pre-deleted material or the type of content erased depends on the person and situation; but face it. We have to have alarm systems which go off only when a key word suggesting trouble is said. We all are guilty.
Why guilty? Because our partners rarely have the same filters that we do. What we let pass through open chambers they considering important. Women in particular are good symbolists, meme-artists, and deconstructionists. It isn’t exactly what they say that matters, it’s what they mean. So although they may be talking about linoleum or gutters, they are sending messages of responsibility, respect, and fulfillment of the marriage contract.
Men who talk about Act III of Coriolanus want their wives to hear about their lives under domineering mothers.
Listening loses importance and relevance as one ages. For young people listening for sexual cues is part of the dating game – miss one and you may go home alone. Parsing every line and getting them right sends a signal. “I am interested. You matter. I care about you.”
Older people for whom sexual diversion, business negotiation, and even marital accord are things of the past are less interested in listening to anything. ‘Set in their ways’, convinced that they know all there is to know or at least what is unknowable, impatient with anything which disrupts their final days, they pay less and less attention to wives, children, priests, and politicians.
It is neither that their minds are cluttered with the decades of data capture and storage; nor that their soft brains can’t process information the way they used to; nor that there is an increasingly vacuous space between their ears. It is a preoccupation with the end of life and its inescapably solitary nature that is the finest filter of all. No one can offer anything of use at this point. We like to hear our wives and husbands in the kitchen; and that’s enough.
Listening to what other people say has become part of communitarian cant. If we all listened, paid attention to, and respected what others say, the world would be a better place.
Yet the world doesn’t operate that way. Few people listen to others with complete openness and interest. Expression is part of individuality, personal value, and meaning. It comes first.
Ethologists have long wondered why frogs croak at night. No theories of mating or aggressive/defensive behavior held water. “I am here” was their conclusion. A basic, elemental statement of being.
The need for talking and not listening is no different. “I am here”, we croak. “Listen to me and pay attention.”