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Updated 07 March 2014

Tune in to your sense of hearing

Exhausted by all the noise around you? Then perhaps it's time to use your ears more effectively: filter out the noise, and make space for the good sounds – and silence.

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Tune in to your sense of hearing

The drone of peak-hour traffic, the sound of the neighbour's electric drill, the incessant ringing of the telephone in an open-plan office. Silence, please!

Our sense of hearing is a remarkable tool through which we experience everything around us. The problem, for most of us anyway, is that the sounds of the busy world we live in take over way too easily. Having to cope with noise isn't merely a hassle; it has a real effect on our health too.

Apart from disturbing sleep, noise pollution can affect our heart and mental health, and our children's academic performance. European research shows that the noise from an aircraft can cause an average increase of 6.2 in systolic blood pressure and 7.4 in diastolic blood pressure. And people with high blood pressure have an increased risk for heart disease, stroke and dementia.

Are you exhausted? Then perhaps it's time to use your ears more effectively: filter out the noise, and make space for the good sounds – and silence.

Without hearing, we're vulnerable
Hearing is a complex process of picking up sound and translating it into a message that the brain can decipher. This is done by means of our ears – advanced, sensitive organs that are fully developed at birth. The major task of the ear is to detect and analyse noises by transduction, where energy is transformed from one form to another.

Without our sense of hearing we're extremely vulnerable: we're incapable of hearing danger, whether a car or a burglar, approaching. And, in many instances, our hearing sense contributes more to our knowledge than sight, so much so that some cultures deem hearing our most important sense.

Unfortunately, the sense itself is also vulnerable: too much exposure to loud noise can cause permanent damage.

Music: food for heart and soul
Have you ever had goose bumps while listening to a musical performance, or found it difficult not to tap your feet to the rhythm of your favourite song? Then you'll know that music is a universal language.

While our tastes may differ in terms of what we love or loathe, research shows that certain kinds of music have fairly similar effects on our bodies and brains. Choosing how you engage with music, and this most fascinating way of using your hearing sense, is probably more important than you think.

Italian researchers found that people with mild hypertension, who listened to classical, Celtic or Indian classical music for just 30 minutes a day had significant reductions in blood pressure. Other research showed that soothing music helped to reduce pain and anxiety. But another study indicated that participants who listened to 15 minutes of grunge rock felt more hostility, sadness, tension and fatigue.

It really does seem intuitive: soft, slow, soothing melodies are calming (even more so if you have musical training, research shows); faster, heavier, grating sounds have the opposite effect. So, at the end of a hectic day, it could be well worth your while to unwind to the sounds of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Your heart and your brain certainly won't complain.

Interestingly, our ability to perceive music may have been developed through the ability of animals to communicate with one another using vocalisations. After all, the sounds of human speech have much in common with the sounds made by animals.

The sound of silence
While music can have a profound effect on our health, a situation that's devoid of any external sounds or stimulation – where you find a quiet spot and simply focus on the rhythm of your own breathing – can also be extremely beneficial.

Using your sense of hearing to meditate in this way will help you to become more aware of the present moment. This, in turn, will help you to reach a renewed, deep level of relaxation. And by filtering out most sounds, you'll be in a better position to hear the whisperings of your soul. When we sit in silence, we actually get to experience exactly what goes on in our minds.

But finding a few moments of silence can be a challenge. If you live in a city, try to take some time out in nature as often as you can. Sitting quietly, and focusing your attention on the sound of a bird, the flow of a water stream or just your own breathing, can be remarkably rewarding.

- (Carine Visagie, Health24, November 2009)

Sources: Reuters Health, HealthDayNews & the US National Institutes of Health

Related articles: The anatomy of hearing

Learn more about your sense of touch, smell and sight.

 
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