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Safe Sonics


The over-arching theme in Joshua Leeds's book, The Power of Sound, is the tremendous, yet unacknowledged, influence that sound and hearing have over human functionality. But what happens if our ability to hear is diminished?

In Western culture, auditory dysfunction is growing at an unprecedented rate, due mainly to noise and stress. Our delicate auditory mechanism serves as a barometer of physiological status as well as of our emotional state of mind. The result of auditory malfunction is more than a diminution of hearing.

A weakened auditory system endangers auditory sequential processing. This function affects short-term memory - the critical ability to link pieces of auditory information.

Auditory sequential processing is critically affected by auditory tonal processing. Difficulty interpreting tone may create sequential processing issues. The neurodevelopmental specialist Robert J. Doman Jr. believes that the inability to focus our listening - a symptom of auditory dysfunction - diminishes communication, language, and attention skills in adults and children. Is it a coincidence that the explosive growth in learning disabilities - a sequential processing issue - is paralleled by an accelerating rate of food allergies that cause children's ear infections?

According to Tomatis, Doman, and other pioneers, sound is a vital stimulant, a nutrient for the nervous system. Consequently, weakened auditory function depletes a major fuel system for the brain.

Of the many causes of hearing and listening impairment, two primary forms will be discussed. Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) contributes to approximately 35 percent of all hearing loss in America. Too many protracted loud sounds damage the inner ear. NIHL is physiological damage: The delicate cilia hair cells cannot be repaired.

In addition, stress can impede the active absorption of sound. I label this phenomenon stress-induced auditory dysfunction (SIAD). According to Billie Thompson, a leading Tomatis adherent and an expert in auditory impairment, "Poor listening can begin at any age and for any number of reasons. It might result from a health problem, an accident, a major lifestyle disruption, or from stress." Among the symptoms of a degraded auditory function, says neurodevelopmental expert Doman, are "disorganized neurological function - affecting the ability to perceive, assimilate, process, and retrieve data - and emotional overreactivity."

Additionally, when we can no longer tolerate a parent, sibling, spouse, boss, or the like, we begin to shut down the mechanism of the middle ear. This has the effect of eliminating the vocal frequencies we reject. Such psychological muting becomes a reflexive and subconscious action. As we shut out sounds, however, we also decrease the audio frequency spectrum.

The net effect of hearing loss, be it noise or stress induced, is that a vital energy source for the brain and nervous system is diminished. Additionally, the degradation of auditory function can result in muddled thinking and out-of-balance emotions.

Stress-induced auditory dysfunction affects the muscles in the middle ear. (The tensor tympani and stapedius muscles become flaccid; this causes the ossicles - the three tiny bones of the middle ear - to work less efficiently in protecting the eardrum from excessive sound and in transmitting a full spectrum of sound.) This form of hearing and listening loss can be addressed, to differing degrees, with sound stimulation auditory retraining programs. While inner ear damage from noise cannot be repaired, auditory retraining of the middle ear allows for better use of what hearing remains.

Stress-induced auditory dysfunction is the psychological equivalent of physiologically based NIHL. Our current growing awareness of SIAD has evolved from the work of Tomatis, Doman, and others over the last four decades. Most healthcare professionals know little about SIAD. Those who recognize and treat the auditory results of stress are reluctant to discuss it due to a dearth of research data. However, many practitioners in neurodevelopment, psychology, psychiatry, speech and language, and occupational therapy acknowledge the SIAD they see repeatedly in their patients. Is the troubling rise in prescriptions of antidepressants and other psychiatric drugs for children and adults masking problems that could be adjusted through remediation of the ear? The auditory response to stress deserves discussion and research. Clinical observations abound, but the neurobiological underpinnings are lacking.


"What can be done about this epidemic in noise- and stress-induced auditory dysfunction," you might ask?
Begin by establishing a new sound awareness.
Assert your sonic rights.
Take appropriate precautions and protect your ears.
Become proactive in auditory health and restoration.
Learn to create sound space conducive to the needs of your nervous system.

We all have the same equipment - two ears. The conscious use of sound comes down to understanding how sound affects us. Then we can apply positive psychoacoustic principles to our situations and environments. This is sonic responsibility.

Sound can be used as a tool to de-stress, improve mental productivity, accelerate learning, minimize pain, and facilitate healing. It is time to take back the space around our ears, to learn to govern our personal sonic environments, and to create soundspaces that enhance the activity at hand. At this point in time, there is too much known about the power of sound to ignore it.

"Safe Sonics" is excerpted from The Power of Sound, published by Healing Arts Press. (c) 2001 Joshua Leeds. All rights reserved.

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