Saturday, January 07, 2006

What Does It Mean To "Hear?"

I was fortunate enough to be privy to a spirited debate about cochlear implants this evening. I'm not going to recount the controversy here, but it did make me think of a side issue that some might find interesting. Specifically, what does it mean to "hear?" Put another way, what is it about hearing a sound that is important to our understanding of the world around us.

So let's say we have two people, Dan and Hal. Dan hears normally (whatever that means) and Hal has a "defect in his hearing whereby he hears an extra syllable for every syllable actually spoken.For instance, if I were to say "Hello," Hal would hear "Helloba." And if I were to say "Bye," Hal would hear "Byeba." Hal has had this condition since he was old enough to start learning language. So when the teacher pointed to a picture of a dog and said "Dog," Hal saw the picture and heard "Dogba." When Hal repeated what he had heard back to the teacher, he said "Dog" by contracting his muscles and exhaling in a manner that he had discovered from experience sounded to him like "Dogba," which is just what Hal heard the teacher say.

So Dan and Hal are sitting next to each other at the symphony listening to some boring classical music by Chopin. Are the two men hearing the same thing? Well, they are receiving the same imput. If you were somehow able to get into each man's head, though, the tune would sound different. Does this matter? Is one man somehow better off than the other? No.

When the symphony plays the next song, Hal is able to tell that it is different from the last song they played. Likewise Dan is also able to distinguish the first song from the second. I think this highlights what is the fundamentally important quality of hearing: the ability to distinguish different sounds. It doesn't matter if Dan and Hal hear the exact same thing, only that they associate what they hear with the same source. It is differentiation between different sounds that is the key importance of hearing, not the "quality" of the sound.

On a somewhat related note, if your child suffered from leprosy and there was a readily available cure, would you take advantage of that cure, thus forever alienating your child from the leper community on Molokai, or would you cure your child, thus condemning the leper colony to an eventual extinction?

As always, comments are welcome and encouraged.


Blogger Xeno said...

I would cure my lepar child and then fake perarcy with oatmeal and grean food coloring to get on the island anyways. Just have to avoid that stupid electric needle hut.

11:47 PM  
Blogger Fishfrog said...

But what if the lepers' colony was in Cleveland?

7:24 AM  
Blogger warm fuzzy said...

key word is "suffered" but many Deaf don't consider themselves suffering from anything except the mainstream society's refusual to accept them as they are. :)

1:37 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

Quick note to say that this portion of the David Foster Wallace essay I mentioned a little while ago talks about this specific point. But I should note that it's not the most thorough response and mostly focuses on getting high and being paranoid.

8:57 AM  

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