January 31, 2014, by Michael Stocker
If you had to forfeit one of the five human senses, which one would you choose? If you chose “hearing,” Michael Stocker’s new book Hear Where We Are: Sound, Ecology, and Sense of Place may cause you to reconsider. A comprehensive study of sound perception, Hear Where We Are makes the case for how utterly dependent we are on the “sounds of our environment to reveal the hidden dimensions of our reality.” Here’s Michael on how hearing—among humans and nonhumans—can do more than simply gather information.
When we humans ponder the perceptual adaptations of other animals, we typically do so through the lens of our own priorities. As a visual metaphor, the use of a “lens” does not sound too myopic, as we see lenses as implements that bring our vision into focus. But in the realm of hearing, the “ear-trumpet” might be our best-fit metaphor: ear-trumpets allow the user to hear what they want by excluding the sounds that they don’t.
It has been by way of the ear-trumpet that much of our scientific inquiry takes place—by excluding noise we arrive at the essence of what we are seeking. Visual noise is clutter; we seek to fix our gaze on what is useful. The prize of our inquiry is the vision we behold.
But this is not necessarily the case with other animals. Auditory “noise” is not necessarily clutter; it can be rich in information and context, particularly for animals that live in the dark—in deep earthen warrens, within the obscuring haze of seawater, or under the cloak of night. For these animals, sound allows them to reach out and weave themselves into the fabric of their environment, sensing movements of predator and prey, and perceiving the safe or threatening boundaries of their surroundings.