A Study of Perception and Imagination in the Context of Listening and Hearing
The ear plays an immense role in our ability to make sense of the world around us. Due to its immense impact on how we make meaning out of our experiences, auditory input also plays an equally important role in imagination, or in other words, our internal world. According to renowned science and technology philosopher, Don Ihde, the evolution of our modern devices has resulted in a shift within our ability to imagine. Once imagination was only associated with seeing images in the mind’s eye, but today, especially through the proliferation of high quality audio devices, noise-cancellation headphones, surround sound systems, and other such phenomenon, sound has become a crucial part of our inner experience.
In this article, we examine the various manifestations of “auditory imagination” and also consider the impact of noise on this form of inner ability of meaning-making that give humans the ability to be “conscious”.
Hearing is the New Seeing
A study conducted by researchers at the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, was able to showcase how deeply intertwined hearing and seeing really are. One of the experiments of the study involved showing participants two objects that passed closely to each on their trajectory. At the point where they were the closest to each other en-route their trajectory, a loud sound was intentionally introduced into the environment. Almost every single participant perceived that the two objects had collided rather than passing by each other (which they actually did) due to the fact that there was a loud sound at the moment where the objects met. The interesting aspect in this case was that when participants were instructed to “imagine” the sound at the point where the objects met, rather than actually playing the sound, the same observations were seen. In essence, the study showed that visual perception is influenced deeply by not only what we hear, but also what we “imagine” hearing.
Listening to Oneself
All, if not most of us, tend to engage in an internal dialogue with ourselves consistently throughout waking (sometimes even during sleep) life. This inner speech of ours, according to Don Ihde, is a definitive part of auditory imagination. The philosopher states that our internal dialogue is a composition made up of speech patterns from memory. The inner dialogue or mental voice is the most definitive manifestation of auditory imagination. It is specifically due to the auditory nature of this voice that our inner sense of “self” or our inner meaning-making mechanism tends to be influenced and challenged by external sounds. Researchers like Ihde, Verstraete, and Oliver Sacks, have dealt with the concept of auditory distress and how it can disrupt our internal dialogue and influence our auditory imagination. Many of us might have experienced this as well, where a distressing and intense sound often tends to negate our internal dialogue and leave us in momentary confusion. The inner voice is closely associated with our ability to reason and to logically interpret our moment-by-moment experiences. A disruption of the same by external noise, especially on the road where reasoning and logical thinking can be the fundamental difference between safety and injury (even death), is something worth considering the next time you feel like honking.
Even though the phenomenon of hearing voices has been well documented, there is an aspect of this form of auditory “hallucination” which is less popular but equally intriguing. According to the works of Evagrius, a Christian monk and ascetic who lived during 345-399 AD, un-pattered sounds, such as the sound of waves lapping a shore or in the modern context, the din of moving traffic, can stimulate the hearing of “phantom” voices. In ancient times, these were sometimes considered to be devils whispering into the ears of humans, tempting them to commit atrocious sins. In a much more recent study, conducted by researchers at Durham University, it was found that individuals who routinely hear voices even without being diagnosed with any mental illness, are able to detect intelligible speech patterns in ambiguous, chaotic and random sounds. A crucial part of this study was that it recognized the neural tendency amongst people who hear voices in their heads (roughly about 5-15% of the global population has this tendency) to find meaning in even random external stimuli. This is just an extension of the way in which movies and other forms of entertainment subconsciously influence our viewing experience through the use of sound and music. Filmmakers have perfected the art of extracting specific emotions from the viewers in order to make visual stimuli more appealing or intense, even though this usually tends to occur on a more subconscious level beyond language as opposed to voice hearing.
Psychological and Physical Functions of the Ear that you Might Not have “Heard” About
Seth Horowitz, a renowned auditory neuroscientist referred to hearing as the universal sense. We cannot shut off our ears like we can close our eyelids, thereby making it a sense that ever-present, ever-active. Hearing has evolved as a fundamental sense, back to days when “hearing” was merely the ability amongst proto-animals to sense vibrations. Since then, the ability to hear acute sounds has defined the line between survival and extinction for numerous species. Hence, even though we might continue to take our sense of hearing for granted, what with all that random chaos of noise around us at all times, there are deep-seated psychological and physiological functions that depend this sense of ours.
Our ears merely collect the sounds from our surroundings. The entire hearing apparatus is actually much more complex and deep-rooted than the ears and involves several biological and psychological systems. In this article, we take a look at certain functional aspects and associations of the ear that might surprise you!
Hearing and Emotion
One of the most important biological links that define the hearing apparatus in our body is its connection to the amygdala, the primal centre of emotion. The amygdala can be best described as an “urgency meter” of your body which prioritizes sensory inputs to the brain in terms of the urgency of reaction required for the same. The auditory cortex, the part of our brain which processes auditory information coming in through our ears, has a strong connection with our amygdala. This biological connection is a result of our ancestors having to listen and react to sounds out there in the wild. For early humans, the fight or flight response kicking in due to the amygdala being activated by the sound of a prowling predator in the bushes played a crucial role in their survival.
However, in modern times, without any predators waiting for us in the alleyways (not the animal kind anyhow), the amygdala and auditory cortex connection still plays a fundamental role in helping us cross a road during traffic and other such scenarios. The amygdala is responsible for the strong emotional reaction that we have when we hear the cry of an infant in distress, or when we hear an especially unsavory sound, like loud bangs, angry voices, etc. In some cases, the amygdala takes over the auditory cortex and changes our very perception of sound itself. This is when disorders like Misophonia can emerge, wherein individuals develop strong fight or flight reactions towards specific sounds which might not really be threatening at all. Misophonia cases have included people who have visceral reactions to sounds such as those emanating from someone chewing, typing on a keyboard, fidgeting, etc. In such cases, the amygdala is basically telling the auditory cortex that the sound coming in, even though it is not really a threat, is a fundamental enemy and hence, demands a powerful emotional reaction against it. People with Misophonia often develop Phonophobia, which is the irrevocable fear of certain sounds.
Hearing and Memory
Another major connection between the hearing apparatus and the rest of the brain is its deep-rooted relationship with the hippocampus, the seat of memory in the human organism. We all have the experiential understanding that certain sounds can trigger specific memories, often in a considerably vivid manner. This is especially true when we listen to music or hear a recognizable voice. A study associated with Johns Hopkins University, conducted over a period of six years, constantly monitored the hearing capabilities and cognitive development of a group of 2000 senior adults. The findings clearly showed that as hearing capacity decreased in the individuals, their ability to retain memories and process them decreased substantially. Hearing loss was almost always accompanied by an inability to recollect memories.
The explanation for this was that as an individual loses the ability to hear stimuli from their immediate environment, the brain tries to compensate for the lack of external auditory stimulus by changing fundamental systems of processing in the brain to “fill in the gaps” of environmental awareness. In this case, a lot of processing resources, such as nutrients, energy, and other foundational aspects are diverted to other areas of the brain, away from memory processing centers, in an attempt to compensate for the lack of hearing. This inadvertently leads to memory loss as a direct result of hearing loss.
Hearing loss has also been associated with inability to maintain rich social interactions. Humans being social animals require interactions with other members of the species, a lack of which can result in a definitive impairment of core cognitive functions. Several studies throughout the years have found that as an individual loses the ability to hear, their interactions with those around them decreases, thereby not only increasing isolation, depressive symptoms, and self-confidence, but also causing reduction of memory and mood regulation capabilities.
Hearing and Sleep Patterns
According to experts, we do not stop hearing even when we are asleep. Our ears are always open; it is just the processing systems in the brain for auditory stimuli that shuts down temporarily during sleep. Due to the fact that our ears continue to receive stimuli even during the night, there are subconscious impacts and processes that continue to be impacted by what we hear in the midst of sleep. One of the foundational subconscious impacts of noises acting as stimulus during our sleep cycles is the reduction of time spent is specific phases of the natural cycle. Fairly loud, irritating and consistent noise can cause us to spend less time in two of the most crucial parts of the sleep cycle, namely that of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase where dreaming occurs, and deep sleep or slow wave sleep, which is crucial for repairing and resetting of bodily systems. On the contrary, we tend to spend more time in the lighter phases of the sleep, such as hypnagogic phase which is the transition phase between wakefulness and sleep.
This essentially means that noise can disrupt our ability to get peaceful and satisfactory sleep, resulting in grogginess and irritability the next day. A study conducted on workers exposed to loud levels of noise due to their occupation showed that their sleep cycles were continually disrupted, with some individuals even showing signs of insomnia or the complete inability to sleep. Another important aspect that was discovered by scientists fairly recently was that during normal waking stages of life, especially during the day, our bodies secrete the hormone known as brain derived-neurotrophic factor or BDNF, which plays the crucial role of protecting our auditory nerves. At night, owing to the fact that noises tend to be much lower in frequency and diversity, this protecting hormone is not secreted, making the auditory nerves vulnerable to damage during such phases. This is a direct explanation of increased noise sensitivity observed among people as well as creatures like mice during night-time sleep cycles.
Hearing and Body Posture
Other than picking up on auditory signals, another fundamental function that the ear performs is that of maintaining body balance. A specific part of the middle ear, known as the vestibular canal or the middle ear “labyrinth” does not pick up or respond to auditory stimulus, but rather to body movements. The vestibular system of the ear is responsible for anchoring the center of mass in the body and thereby, allowing an individual to maintain equilibrium during activities such as walking, sitting, climbing, etc. It is due to visual and vestibular inputs that the body can maintain an upright posture. Hence, scientists have investigated the role of hearing loss and aging of the vestibular system in terms of the change in body posture that occurs in several individuals as they grow older. The fundamental role of the vestibular system pertains to the orientation of the head and its posture with regards to the body and the neck. Hence, a dysfunction in the vestibular system is often associated with illnesses or psychological disorders such as vertigo and accompanying symptoms, such as dizziness and nausea. Dysfunction in the vestibular system also results in blurred vision and can also lead to increase in the frequency of falls during old age. In some cases, patients have also been shown to display other physical symptoms, such as diarrhea, due to the malfunction of their internal balance system in the ear.
What do the Religions say about Noise?
Recently, the acclaimed Indian singer, Sonu Nigam, sparked off a controversy by firing off an angry tweet directed towards the early morning Islamic prayer call or azaan, likening it to unnecessary noise pollution for people of different faiths.
The azaan is a staple cultural sound in countries like India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Emirates, and several other regions.
However, when a celebrity likened it to “noise”, it did not merely incite the ire of pro-religious groups but also the imagination of people like us who dove into the annals of history and myth to find signs of the deep-rooted relationship between noise and religion.
This is what we found.
Earliest Noise Pollution Law
The mention of noise pollution in a religious context dates back to the first ever piece of literature to have been written, namely the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ belonging to ancient Sumerian culture. In this epic, the punishment for noise pollution is deemed to be divine intervention and judgment by God himself! The exact part of the story that corresponds to this aspect of noise pollution is as follows:
In those days the world teemed, the people multiplied, the world bellowed like a wild bull, and the great god was aroused by the clamour. Enlil heard the clamour and he said to the gods in council, “The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel.” So the gods in their hearts were moved to let loose the deluge.
This part of the story recounts the incident where man-made noise pollution results in the angering of the Gods, who then proceed to release a flood to destroy humanity and regain their peace.
Role of Noise in Creation of the Universe
Babylon, another crucial ancient civilization that is said to be the cradle of most religions as well as civilization in general, attributed a major role to noise in their creation myth. According to the prophets of Babylon and the subsequent scriptures that were preserved from this era, it was the noise produced by the lower gods, the sons and daughters of the original creators of the universe, Absu and Tiamat, that kickstarted the creation of the universe itself!
According to the scriptures, the primordial waters, represented by the salty ocean waters of Tiamat and the fresh waters of Absu, existed way before anything of the material universe had come into existence. When the waters of Tiamat and Absu mingled, several lower gods sprung forth and starting cackling and making all kinds of noises, like boisterous children. It is this noise that raised Absu and Tiamat from their slumber, thereby leading Absu to proceed to plan out their death. After this a major battle between the primordial gods and the lower gods ensues, in which the former are defeated. The dead body of Tiamat is then used to create the heavens and the Earth according to the myth. None of this would have happened if the lower gods had stayed silent and withheld the noise that resulted in creation itself.
God of Noise
The Greek God Homados was the personification of the noise that emanated from battlefields, encompassing the thunderous roar of bloodcurdling battle cries, the clanging of shield and sword, the footsteps pounding on the ground, and the cries of the wounded among myriad other sounds. This personification is similar and even synonymous with that of the God Kydoimos, who represented the confusing, erratic, abstract and chaotic aspect of the noise that emerged from the bowels of battle. One of the mentions of this God is in the epic known as ‘Iliad’ by Homer, in which the following words are inscribed on the shield of the ancient hero Achilles:
“These stood their ground and fought a battle by the banks of the river, and they were making casts at each other with their spears bronze-headed; and Eris (Hate) was there with Kydoimos (Cydoemus, Confusion) among them, and Ker (Death) the destructive; she was holding a live man with a new wound, and another one unhurt, and dragged a dead man by the feet through the carnage.”
Evolution of Soundscapes over the Years
Even though the evolution of living beings has been, more or less, clearly charted out over the great gulfs of time, there are peripheral tracts of historical development that have not been shed “light” on, so to speak. It is easy to ignore that the sounds of our environment have evolved along with us, taking on as dynamic and vibrant forms as the living beings that produced, perceived and reacted to them. In this sense, sound is as alive as the creatures that have walked the face of this planet over the years.
Here, we strive to provide a glimpse into the way in which sound and soundscapes have evolved through the years, including the indelible connection that they have to the evolution and development of living beings in general.
The Primal Soundscape
Before the first living beings scuttled or glided around on Earth’s primal surface, sounds and noises of all kinds existed and thrived. The advent of living things was preceded by soundscapes that were mostly defined by natural phenomena, the patter of raindrops falling on naked rocks only to be consumed by the rumbling sounds of volcanic explosions that filled the air. There was also a slow din, the bubbling of lava as it seeped and spurted out of these primitive cauldrons of life. Amidst the more colossal noises, such as intermittent earthquakes churning the early Earth’s bowels, the vast clambering of rocks down cliffs and mountain surfaces during landslides, there were also the more subtle and soft sounds, such as those of waves lapping a shore, a breeze turning into a whistling wind, and waterfalls meeting with the rocks in an orchestra of tones that still ring in many parts of the world today.
Nature’s First Musicians Arrive
Some of the first natural sounds to impregnate the primal soundscapes of the Earth were the buzzing of insects and the clicking of their mandibles and serrated limbs. About the same time, fishes began to develop the prototype of the ear in the form of an organ that could sense low-frequency vibrations in the water. As life trudged on, there began the snorts, grunts, huffs and puffs of primitive animals as they obtained the ability to breath and used the same to be as noisy as possible. Some of these animals started to emit hissing sounds as a result of learning that could use this sound to intimidate predators. During the Triassic and Jurassic Period, the natural orchestra inducted many more diverse tonal participants and the soundscape exploded in terms of its vibrancy and variety during this time. Crickets were among the most pronounced sounds in this new sonic arsenal of nature, their chirping quickly proliferating in accordance to their fast reproduction rates. As the ear drum emerged in primordial animals during this time, their ability to create more intricate sounds also developed. The soundscape was markedly distinct during this age, from the roaring, clicking, and boom-filled mating calls of large dinosaurs to courtship songs of turtles and the drumming of stoneflies.
A Primordial Crescendo
The asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs and much of other large animal populations during the time was a crescendo of this natural symphony that spanned the ages. The sounds of the asteroid striking the Earth and the aftermath of the same would have been like nothing ever heard by living beings before. Even though it caused a lot of the life on Earth to end, the planet only became louder and more invigorated in terms of sonic tonalities after the event. After the dinosaurs left the stage, the birds entered and began a performance like no other, unparalleled in terms of the sheer variety of sounds that were emanated by a living species until then. Birdsong has been and still is one of the most articulate and well-arranged forms of vocalizations among all non-human species to have walked (or in this case, flew) on this planet. The quacks, whistles, honks and other sounds of birdsong coincided with the increase in hearing capabilities of fishes that were now able to perceive high frequency sounds, thereby resulting in an increase in soundscape complexity in the ocean. Small rodents and early mammals also joined the orchestra of life during this time, coming up with their own diverse sounds and adding the same to the ever-evolving chirping and birdsong filled soundscapes of the time. The natural sounds also changed considerably during these phases, from the whooshing and whooping of arctic winds coupled with the massive cracking and crushing sounds of majestic glaciers to the steaming jungles that were ripe with large insects, venomous mammals and all manner of birds, all of which had many centuries to practice their vocalizations.
The Beginnings of Our Story in the Natural Orchestra
Humans joined the orchestra of life about 3 million years ago, equipped with pinnae or external ears that were well adapted to perceive a variety of sounds. They found themselves enveloped by the primal song of predator and prey, a constant din louder than any traffic jam today filled their primitive ears as well as their minds as they began to understand the sources of these myriad sounds. The sheer level of intricacy in terms of the development of the human ear throughout history shows us the importance that sound played in allowing early man to understand and adapt to his environment. Thus began our first addition to the primordial song with the help of grunts, loud recurring ululations, and protolinguistic sounds of all kinds which were repurposed from our ancestors, the apes who had already began to use hoots, whoops, and other forms of calls for their own communicative purposes.
Fact File: did you know that we process sound about 20 to 100 times faster than we process visual information? This means that everything we see is essentially dependent on the perceptual information that we gain from what we hear before the act of seeing.
Soon enough, as the soundscape of the natural world, pregnant with unknown possibilities, pushed man’s imagination further, the sounds of roaring fires, of implements, of tools and of tribal gatherings began to flood the cacophonous emanations of Earth. As the focus of man shifted from mating, protection from predators, and hunting, to farming and other, safer, social dimensions, language developed and the soundscape was no longer what it once was. Development began to accelerate like never before, boundaries were created between natural and man-made sounds, and thus, began the systematic accretion of nature from the orchestra of life.
The Rise of the Machines
The Industrial Revolution was another major crescendo after the asteroid impact on Earth, rivalling it in its sheer loudness as well as its ability to silence other sounds that had till then played a key role in the environmental tonality. Cars, machines, factories, and myriad other inventions came with their distinct tones as they proliferated with the ferocity and speed of the early insects that grew and thrived in the swamps of adolescent Earth. Large cities arose that were so loud and so distinct from natural environments that they created a whole new soundscape of their own. Living beings born into such soundscapes were once again bombarded with a cacophony that early men confronted from the depths of their cave dwellings. However, this time, the sounds were all explainable and held no degree of mystery and obscure qualities. Nonetheless, the development of man continued at unprecedented rates as art, literature, music, technology, and other domains of modern life were churned out from the new cauldrons of evolutions, encapsulated in sonic cages.
The once fundamental contributors of the orchestra of life, birds and insects, became part-time contributors as all major positions were filled by the inventions and machinations of man. The natural sounds were choked out by unnatural and artificial sounds, monotone and purposeless, without reason and with sheer sonic ruthlessness.
In the midst of this tonal genocide of natural sounds by man-made sounds in our cities, we find ourselves today, contemplating on the irony of the song of our march into the future, embedded with the harsh tones of car horns and the grinding of vast factories.
Even though the sights of today speak of the majesty of human progress, the sounds of the modern world tell a very different story.
Use of Noise and Sound as Weaponry
An ancient story written in the bible about the conquest of the city of Jericho is one of the first allusions to the use of sound/noise as a weapon. In the story, a group of priests are able to topple down the walls of the city of Jericho through the sheer sonic power of their trumpets.
Over the years noise and sound in general has emerged as a powerful weapon either to control crowds during riots or to damage the capabilities of enemies in long drawn-out wars. Here is a list of the various ways in which the power of noise has been harnessed into weaponry over the years.
One of the bloodiest wars of all time, the Second World War, saw the siege of Stalingrad in Soviet Russia by German forces. During this time, the Soviet soldiers used to play Argentine tango music through loud speakers at night in order to ensure that the German soldiers were not able to sleep, thereby making them weary and tired for battle in the morning.
Similarly, during the Vietnam War, US soldiers swear on the effectiveness of the tactic of playing loud tank noises, tiger roars and even Doris Day songs through loud speakers in order to impact the psychological morale of their enemies.
Another interesting psychological war tactic used by US troops during the Vietnam War was known as Operation Wandering Soul. At night, the troops used loud speakers to play unsettling groaning sounds that were designed to represent the beliefs of the Vietnamese people that their ancestors who were not buried in the proper way were still roaming the lands as angry wailing spirits.
In 1989, when Manuel Noriega, the leader of Panama, barricaded himself inside the Panama Embassy in Vatican City during the US invasion of his country, troops played loud heavy metal music in order to disorient and drive him out of hiding.
Not only has noise been used as a powerful tactic of psychological warfare, it has also been repurposed as an actual weapon. One of the most popular examples of this is the LRAD or Long Range Acoustic Device that was used by the Pentagon in order to aid US troops in Iraq.
The LRADs were mounted onto humvees and directed towards Iraqi dissidents who often used to gather at checkpoints. The LRAD, which could also be used as loudspeakers, have another setting on them which allows for the generation of loud sonic pulses that can disorient and sometimes, physical disrupt their ear drums. The sonic pulses from the LRAD can go up to 140 decibels, which is similar to hearing a jet engine take off just 100 feet away!
Today, the LRAD is used by over 20 countries for various reasons, from crowd control on occasions such as Occupy Wall Street, to deterring pirate ships from robbing merchant vessels on the high seas of Africa and the Indian Ocean.
Torture and Interrogation
Due to the fact that there are ‘earlids’ like we have eyelids, sound and noise have been used as effective tools for torturing and forcing confessions out of prisoners of war, criminals and detainees in general, all over the world through the years.
In Northern Ireland, sometime in the 1970s, an interrogation unit known as the ‘Music Room’ was designed to break prisoners through the use of extended sessions of bombardment by white noise. There was another device, known as the Curdler, which tortured the detainees through the use of high frequency sounds that caused low level physical harm to human ears.
Music, especially the loud and extreme variety, such as death metal and aggressive hip-hop, has been fashioned as a potent torture method in Guantanamo Bay, one of the most infamous prisons in the world. It has been reported that loud music, at decibel levels that have been described as being “at volumes just below that to shatter the eardrums” was played constantly for periods of over 72 hours.
Artists, whose music has been used in torture and interrogation, actually teamed up and protested the use of their songs in heinous practices. This is how the Zero dB coalition was formed as well as other movements which highlighted the disgust that musicians felt on having their art turned into weapons.
Impact of Noise on Animals and Birds
Even though we might consider loud noises as a nuisance and might crib about it, our misery is nowhere near as fatal as compared to animals and birds.
Without the myriad technological and cultural mediums of escape at their disposal that we humans tend to take for granted and abuse, birds and animals are irrevocably dependent on their immediate environment for survival.
Fauna has a much deeper association with their surrounding environment, in which sound forms a fundamental part, especially when it comes to threat detection, presence of food, availability of mating partners, and many more aspects.
What happens when the rich system of stimuli that is the habitat of animals and birds is bombarded with human-made noises, disrupting natural signals and disorienting almost every species in its natural functioning?
The effects are disheartening to say the least.
Noise can cause PTSD in Birds
A study that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences detailed an experiment in which differing levels of noise was used to test and analyze the reactions of different species of birds.
The results should that high levels of noise induced PTSD-like (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) symptoms in birds, with reactions that were quite similar to that of humans who suffered from debilitating psychological trauma due to war or other intense experiences.
One of the fundamental reasons behind these symptoms amongst birds was that they were not able to understand and coordinate their hatching and nurturing cycles in accordance to fundamental natural cues.
Without access to the natural sounds of their immediate environment, which was muffled by loud noises, birds were unable to understand whether there were low enough levels of predatory presence and thereby, were confused as to whether or not to lay their eggs.
Those bird species that laid eggs in this noisy environment where further confronted with the decision to either stay guard or to go foraging for food. The loud noises triggered an instinctive sound-based impulse that a predator was near, forcing the parent to stay guard on the young. The constant noise disrupted foraging cycles while also increasing stress levels considerably.
The poor birds were constantly bombarded with predatory cues, putting them in a similar situation as how a human would feel in a warzone.
Furthermore, stunted growth amongst hatchlings was also observed in high noise areas. Simultaneously, rates of successful hatching also fell considerably due to high levels of noise in the environment.
Noise can Cause Birth Defects in Animals
A study conducted in 1998 by researchers Anders Mollen and John Swaddle, titled ‘Asymmetry, Developmental Stability, and Evolution’ found that increased exposure to noise amongst pregnant mice resulted in deformed pups which showed signs of skewed bone growth.
Other studies, conducted as early as back in the 1970s show that growth rates amongst species such as the brown shrimp is reduced to a considerable extent even when environmental noise levels increase by 30%.
It is clear that noise impacts animals even in their embryonic stages within the womb, a fact that rings true even for humans. A study found that the young ones of a species of duck known as the Muscovy Duck, showed behavioral changes that were a direct result of the noise prevalent in the environment around the mother.
Environmental noise, specifically those generated from human activities, also tend to disrupt a subtle form of communication in the animal kingdom which most people might not even have heard about before.
Did you know that there is a form of communication known as inter-egg communication which occurs between embryos and facilitates a phenomenon called hatching synchrony?
The foundations of inter-egg communication come from the ability of one embryo to detect the heart beat of another that is present in the egg besides it. Based on the heart rate of the embryos in the surrounding eggs, an embryo is able to adjust its metabolism rate so as to coordinate hatching in such a way that all the young emerge at a similar time from their respective eggs.
Environmental noise makes it difficult for embryos to detect subtle cues such as heart beats from their surrounding environment, thereby wreaking havoc with embryonic metabolism levels, hatching times, and overall development within the egg in species like snakes, turtles, and others.
Noise Impairs Cognitive and Physiological Development
One debilitating impact of noise that has been studied over the years is the fact that increased exposure to noise can in fact decrease the ability amongst bird species to “sing” the tunes that they normally produce in the wild.
This impact was observed amongst species such as the Zebra finch, which were found unable to produce the natural vocalizations that they utilize in mating rituals and communication in general, after exposure to short and long term extreme decibel levels.
Birdsong has been associated with fundamental cognitive development in birds, similar to how linguistic ability in humans has been associated directly with cognitive growth, especially amongst children. This showcases that noise has the ability to impair cognitive functions and debilitate the normal everyday capabilities required for basic activities amongst animals.
Noise exposure has been linked to learning deficits amongst species of rats in controlled conditions, where it was found that they demonstrated lower levels of spatial cognitive understanding (awareness of immediate environment) when exposed to high decibel levels.
Numerous species have also found to be suffering from neural degeneration due to exposure to noise. As soon as these animals/birds were moved away from a noisy environment to a quieter one, their neurons started regenerating and growing again at nominal rates of development.
Noise exposure has even been linked to genetic changes and chemical cascades that can cause fundamental changes in the micro-biological functioning of animals and birds. Studies showed that high levels of noise reduce the proliferation of a specific type of receptor in the brains of animals, such as rats, pertaining to a neurotransmitter known as GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid). GABA is especially involved in reducing stress in the body and bringing the body back to baseline “peace” after a stressful episode.
Nature Finds a Way – Directions for the Future
Noise is a direct result of development, especially on an industrial level, and hence is a defining factor when it comes to the modern way of life adopted by humans. However, even though the source of noise is advancement, its impacts and consequences, especially for other species of animals and birds, are destructive in nature.
Amidst this cacophony that has been created by humans, nature has found its own way out of a messy situation. Some species of birds have adapted to high noise environment by modulating vocal patterns accordingly.
An Australian study found that species of birds known as ‘Silvereyes’ have evolved differently in urban and rural areas. Birds in urban areas were found to sing at higher frequencies in order to ensure that they were heard about the din of man-made noises. Their songs were also slower as compared to rural birds, signifying that the birds were making changes in order to ensure higher clarity amidst the chaos of noisy urban spaces.
Another interesting finding in numerous studies across the years was that music had a profound positive impact on all aspects of animal/bird life, from hatching cycles and embryonic development to cognitive development and genetic growth. This shows that music is a definitive universal blessing that is highly beneficial to both humans and animals.
Maybe, it is time to make our cities more musical and do away with noise that is pleasing to neither human nor animal.
The Post-Horn: A Historical Study of Instrument Origins from On-Road Utility
The Post-Horn: A Historical Study of Instrument Origins from On-Road Utility
Even though the noise of the vehicular horn might be one of the least musical sounds on the roads today, there is a specific vein of the story of its origins which is quite musical in essence.
If we go way back to the times of horse drawn carriages, a very peculiar tool was used to announce the arrival of mail coaches; a valve-less prototype of the current vehicular horn, known as the post-horn. As the name suggests, the tool was mainly used by carriages that brought in the posts and mails, a sort of predecessor of the present-day mail-van.
In the case of the mail carriages, which usually comprised of two horses, a post-horn blower enjoyed a singular position and responsibility – that of blowing the post-horn to signal the arrival of the mail and of course, to ensure that unsuspecting pedestrians moved out of the way of this two horse-power vehicle that could crush them to death.
Understanding the Post-Horn
The original use of the post-horn can be found amongst hunting parties of European yore, where the curved looped body of the horn was slung across one of the shoulders of a hunter and used whenever he needed to signal and communicate with the others in his party. This usually involved signaling the capture of game, to indicate one’s location to others, and so on.
When the post horn was adopted by the mail carriage service at the time in regions such as England, the curved body was sometimes straightened out into a straight cylindrical horn to facilitate ease of use and better holding capability.
However, both variants of the horn made their way from the hunting grounds to the streets. Over time, the curled and looped variation of the horn was preferred by normal coaches and horse-drawn carriages in a similar fashion and utility mode as the present-day car horn, while the straight and cylindrical horn became exclusive to the mail carriages.
Due to the fact that the post-horn was largely valve-less, the changing of pitch of this “instrument” was done by manipulating the vibrations of the lips while blowing on it. During one of the many mail delivery trips, a post-horn blower who was especially bored of producing the same tone through the instrument placed his hand in the bell end, thereby producing a different sound.
Transition from Horn to Musical Instrument
As more and more people started to experiment with ways of changing the sound of the post-horn, inspired by its natural harmonic sound that appealed to musical tastes, the instrument soon made its way from the streets to the concert halls.
Famous musicians of antiquity, renowned for their musical contribution throughout history, have utilized the post-horn in their orchestras. Some of these individuals include:
– Johann Beer, who used to post horn as the main solo instrument in his orchestra,
– Mozart whose post-horn usage in Serenade No. 9 earned the composition the name “Post Horn Serenade”,
– Mahler advised one of the best soloists of the brass section of his orchestra to take up the post-horn during his composition called the Third Symphony, pushing the instrument into the spotlight,
– Hermann Koenig popularized a symphony known as the Post Horn Gallop which is played even today during certain football matches in England, being the official song of the Leicester City Football Club.
A Crucial Lesson from History
Over the years as the post-horn became more of a staple in concert halls, valves were added to its existing design in order to craft the instrument that is known as the Cornet today. Being a sister to the trumpet, this extremely crucial instrument for the brass section of orchestras around the world was born out of the renovation of the post-horn.
This is a fundamental lesson from history pertaining to the fact that some of the best instruments have non-musical and often, irritating origins. How does this bode for the current vehicular horn though?
As drivers in countries like Indonesia and India replace their universal sounding horn with more musical sounds, it is becoming evident that people crave musical alternatives to the monotone of the current horn.
Maybe, it is time we took the vehicular horn off the streets and re-envision it as an instrument rather than a profane source of noise pollution. Maybe, it is time for the modern day vehicular horn to follow in the footsteps of its ancestors and embrace a life in the studios and concert halls of the future.
How does that sound to you?
Honking and Language: What’s the Connection?
Honking and Language: What’s the Connection?
The city of Cairo, which is also known as one of the noisiest cities on the planet, is also home to an interesting auditory phenomenon that is not known as much as its infamous place on the national decibel level list.
With the incessant wave upon wave of honks that impregnate Cairo’s soundscapes, it is only natural that there is some sort of an order behind the aural chaos that is at the heart of this city’s experience.
It turns out that drivers have developed their own “honking language” in Cairo, a tongue that has emerged seemingly out of completely natural circumstances.
A newcomer to Cairo might find himself/herself lost in a sea of auditory chaos, but for the locals, the honks have a deeper, hidden meaning. The honks actually work similar to Morse Code and in fact contains actually communicative phrases rather than mere expletives or monotonous meaningless audio signals like most other countries.
One of the most common phrases exchanged amongst local drivers in Cairo through the secret honking language is “Thank You”, which is signified by a succession of two short beeps. A long honk is understood to be a considerate “Take Care”, while four short beeps succeeded by a long one is the quintessential phrase “I Love You”.
Photo by Stanley Nguma from Pexels
Each phrase has its own accepted “social” situation where it finds its maximum contextual utility. For instance, the “I Love You” phrase tends to be used mostly when someone selflessly offers to give way to a driver or if there is a need to quell a potential road rage situation by calming someone down. Moreover, phrases like “Congratulations” are used by drivers whenever they see a newly-weds’ car pass by, almost becoming a traditional custom.
Essentially, in the noisiest city of the world, honking is no longer a meaningless cacophony, but rather has been transformed in a cultural sound full of social utility. It is evident that when drivers get their licenses in Cairo, they are expected to be well-versed in this secret language, even though this is not taught during their driving license test as far as we know.
It seems to be learnt on the streets in the midst of the chaos of traffic, where even in the middle of a crowd you can quickly find yourself feeling lonely. Maybe, this is what resulted in the language emerging in the first place!
Local coffee shops, called ahwa, in Cairo are hubs for new drivers to learn this language from taxi drivers who are some of the most fluent “speakers” of the same.
At the end of the day, the question remains – if honking can be converted to a language then how deep of an association does it have with other more advanced languages?
Let’s explore what one can learn about honking by understanding language and its evolution.
The Cultural Link between Honking and Language
There are certain sounds which can be definitely classified as being culturally relevant. For instance, the sound of the call to prayer or azaan that emanates from mosques in countries such as India, Pakistan and in regions throughout the Middle East is a cultural sound. Even sounds such as crude instruments that are played by beggars in India as they seek alms are cultural sounds that are unique to the region.
These sounds tend to be prevalent in only specific regions of the world and are sometimes also confined to local boundaries, thereby making them a definitive aspect of the cultural milieu of that place. This is the fundamental connection between seemingly random noises or sounds and the phonetic sounds of languages, both of which are cultural artefacts.
Even though the sound of vehicular horns tends to differ slightly based on car make/model as well as the region, it is still pretty much universal. However, the way in which this sound is used by drivers in different cities and regions tends to shift it towards a more defined, culturally-controlled sound.
For instance, if you find yourself in a city in Thailand, you will find that the honks of the vast fleets of tuk-tuks which tend to populate the road are cheery and almost sound excitable. It is difficult to classify the honks of these vehicles as being urgent or serious, rather they assume a conversational tone of excitement and small-talk, almost as if the drivers are greeting the others on the road and asking them, “How are you doing today?”
On the other hand, in the more developed Western cities, such as New York and London, the horn is never used for small-talk and is in fact always an instrument of anger and frustration. The drivers in such cities tend to use the horn to scold or reprimand someone, almost as if saying, “What the hell do you think you are doing?”
This form of difference of honking language in different regions, irrespective of the type or tone of the sound, but rather focusing on the actual usage of the horn sound, is similar to the differences in language that emerged in various regions as an evolutionary response to the environment.
Emergence of Diversity in Languages
Did you know that the reason why English sounds different from Arabic is due to the fact that each language is a specific adaptation to the environment that the language-speaker find themselves in?
According to Ian Maddieson, a linguist who teaches and researches languages at the University of New Mexico, languages and their phonetic qualities depend on environmental factors such as heat, cold, forest cover (or the lack of it), humidity, and many other factors.
One interesting example that he gives is that of the evolution of languages in places that contain a lot of tree cover and wildlife, such as in rainforests and mountain ranges. In such places, the high amount of tree cover, wind and wildlife noises makes it difficult for consonant-heavy sounds, such as “ch”, “sh”, “zh”, “pb” and complicated sounds like “spl” to be transmitted without any major loss of information. Such sounds can easily be lost in transmission and engulfed by the sound of wind or absorbed by the trees or be consumed by the cacophony of animal and bird calls.
Hence, in such places, the languages have evolved to contain mostly vowels and tend to contain more steady and consistent words rather than complex ones. The languages essentially tend to have sounds that are more viable for the environment and can be heard above the other local noises.
Towards Culturally Relevant Honking…?
As car manufacturers look towards universalizing the car horn sound, a process that is already underway since numerous years as import and export becomes common, it is becoming more and more apparent that there is a serious loss of cultural heritage at hand.
As cultural sounds disappear and are replaced by universal sounds, the only saving grace is the fact that drivers in different regions are developing their own linguistic adaptations when it comes to honking. Even though most cities tend to not have a defined and widely accepted honking language such as Cairo, there are definitive signs that vehicle horns are becoming associated with specific social-cultural cues that are unique to a region.
What does this hold for the future? Can this result in a progressive development of actual language speaking skills? Does the development of secret languages bode well for our own sensibilities when it comes to our fellow drivers? Are culturally relevant honking behaviours an antidote to the problem of noise pollution or the very thing that continues to aggravate this problem?
Only time will tell…
Let’s join hands to bring down
F/16 Shardul apartments, Opp Parekhs hospital, 132" Ring road, Nr Shyamal cross roads, Satellite, Ahmedabad 380015