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.

Hearing influences our understanding of the world and ourselves considerably


Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels


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.

Hearing Voices

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.



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