How We Listen: Is It Just The Ears That Play A Role?

we listen

We listen with our hands, not only our ears. Some researchers even suspect we may listen with our hands and other body parts too.

Ever been in a car and a good song pops on the radio and before you know it your fingers are tapping to the rhythm of the music without you even noticing? Ever felt compelled to clap at a certain part of a song because it follows the beat?  We could say that we listen with our hands. Listening happens thanks to our auditory perception that allows for sounds to be processed by our ears.

Julian Treasure made a short Ted talk explaining how we listen and what can we do to listen better.

However, it is possible that we listen with other body parts.

We listen with our hands

Cognitive research and scientists managed to get solid evidence that the sensorimotor systems are involved in language processing. This suggests that comprehending verbal descriptions of actions rely on an internal simulation of the described action.

Several scientists decided to see if this was true. They got a group of people, ages ranging from 18-34-year-olds, to participate in a study. The scientists prepared thirty-five action words into affirmative and negative context sentences.

The participants listened to the spoken sentences, each in the third person and present tense, such as “John walks to work.” to measure their motor grip as they listened and pinched a grip-force sensor.

The researchers found that subjects increased their grip when listening to action words that involved hands or arms. Some of the verbs hand or arm related were: scratch, grate, throw, etc. But this response depended on context, meaning the grip force was unchanged when the action was negative, as in “Laura did not lift her luggage.”

This suggests that when the person hears the sentences of hand verbs happening at the exact moment the brain sends impulses to the motor neurons and the grip becomes tighter. If the action is not happening the grip does not tighten therefore it understands that it’s not happening. We could say that we listen with our hands because it’s our hands that respond to the words being spoken.

Hand-we listen

We listen with our hands

We listen with other parts of the body, too

We listen not only with our hands but we can listen with our whole body. The human brain has the capacity to amaze us each time with what it can accomplish and with all the body parts involved for cognitive abilities to develop.

Susanne Poulette came up with a concept called whole body listening. It consists of breaking the abstract concept of listening by explaining how each body part other than the ears is involved. She explains that the parts involved go as follows; the brain thinking about what is being said; the eyes looking at or toward the speaker; the mouth closed and quiet; the body facing toward the speaker; and the hands and feet quiet and kept to oneself.

Truesdale, later stressed that the most critical part of whole body listening takes place in the brain but we couldn’t forget about the heart which is a way of caring and feeling empathy with those we listen to.

“When we are asking someone to think about what we are saying, we are, in essence, asking for the listener’s brain to be connected and tuned-in.”

Truesdale establishes that whole body listening is a tool, meaning that adults need to think flexibly about how best to use it and there is no one way to teach it.  Gradually, other professionals have come to terms that we listen with our whole body and this helps listening become a less abstract concept and more a concrete concept, easier to understand, teach and practice.

Teaching children

We listen with our whole body, however, teaching children to understand this concept might be abstract. Many parents, teachers, and other professionals have used tips from these professionals to break down the abstract concept of listening into more manageable, concrete actions.

Parents and teachers tend to claim that children have a hard time listening to instructions, stories, etc. When explained into more depth how we listen with our body and what is expected of each body part. Many children claimed that they found listening much easier. Step by step brain training and body training to listen intently and retain the information.

Parts of the body we listen with:

  •        eyes to look at the person talking
  •        ears to hear what is being said
  •        mouth by remaining quiet
  •        hands by keeping them by their side or in lap
  •        feet by placing them on the floor and keeping them still
  •        body by facing the speaker or sitting in chair
  •        brain to think about what the speaker is saying
  •        heart to care about what the speaker talks about

To listen we need to…

Ears: Limit auditory distractions.

Eyes: Look toward the speaker, maybe not directly but checking in for facial expressions to “read” emotions and others’ intentions. Limit distractions and visual clutter. People can hear what is being said even if they are not looking directly at the speaker. Therefore, try to modulate direct eye-contact.

Mouth: Try not to interrupt. Chewing gum can help regulate impulse control.

Hands:  Use a fidget or doodle. Squeeze hands together. Sit on hands or put them in pockets. This helps to concentrate on what the other person is saying.

Feet: Cross or sit on feet to help keep them still. Some people need to move their body to stay regulated, enhance attention, and feel comfortable.

Heart: It’s important to understand why we listen to others. We listen to create rapport, share and experience, and always consider the other person’s feelings.

Brain: We should know how the brain works and how our cognitive abilities and cognitive skills help us to listen with our whole body. Mindfulness can a good asset in being aware of the present moment. This can help to know when to pause and reflect before acting, and knowing how and when to listen with our whole body.