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3. Hearing is a Form of Touch

HearResponsibly Yours, Musings from a Seasoned Hearing Scientist

We live in a planetary bubble of air – the atmosphere. But air is not just for breathing – it is also our invisible personal postal service. It is the conveyance network for our experience of sound from the baby’s first cry, to tender words of encouragement, and the emotional power of music.

But despite our everyday experience of talking and hearing, it may not occur to us that those exchanges are a form of touch.

The air in our atmospheric bubble is pressed right up against our skin including the skin that lines our ear canals and forms the delicate membrane known as the eardrum. Tiny vibratory movements of the molecules of air tapping against that skin lining, as small as ½ the diameter of a hydrogen molecule, are carried to the brain as ‘sound’ when in the frequency range of human sensitivity.    

The typical illustration of ‘waves’ of sound moving across space gives the impression that some ‘thing’ leaves the mouth of a talker and travels across the room to a listener. But in reality, no such thing happens. It’s simply a disturbance jiggling the air that is already laying against our bodies. That’s what creates the hearing experience of subtle violins, soft voices, and the tuneful song of birds.  

Even more remarkable – step outside in the quiet of an open country space where that bubble of fresh clean air welcomes deep, pleasureful breaths. Notice high in the sky that jet plane passing miles over head? Can you hear that faint sound of the engines? At nearly the same time that it touches the skin of your ear canals creating that experience of sound, the vibratory signature of those huge motors is traveling great distances in every direction. 

That disturbance of the earth’s air bubble – that sound – whether registered by our ears or some measuring device is simultaneously permeating all the air – up, down, and sideways – in trails of domino -like line dances of molecules. The molecules only jiggle around their miniscule locations; none of them travel from the jet to you. Sound is a fluttering event, not a thing. Wiggle, wiggle, flutter, – done and gone. New wiggles will soon follow. New flutters will soon again push around the bubble of air adjacent to us.

Every thing, living and inert, is touched by sound. Hence, when you speak or listen to someone – you are exchanging literal caresses of communication. When your cat purrs or your granddaughter sings – you are touched by a miracle of auditory connection. 

Savor it. Protect it.  Improve it when you can.

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