We're All Hearing Differently, and Here's the Proof

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A young girl gets an EEG to measure her brain's response to sound at the Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern University.

This week, Only Human introduced you to Professor Nina Kraus. Kraus is convinced: all of us are probably hearing the world a little bit differently. And the proof is in our brain waves.

Using EEGs, she’s shown that some autistic children don’t process pitch well. Children with reading disorders often have neurons that fire out of sync. And as all of us age, there’s more “background noise” in our brains.

The analogy Kraus uses is that the world around us is like a great concert — and our brains are a mixing board. How that mixing board translates what we’re hearing can have a profound impact on what we understand about what’s going on around us.

She’s played around with movie clips to make her point.

Say someone with a normal hearing brain was watching the movie “Network.” Kraus says they’d see that famous scene where Howard Beale, the newscaster, goes a bit crazy on live television and hear this:

But someone with autism, they might hear the same clip more like this:

That flattened pitch you’re hearing could have real consequences — since pitch is how we understand emotion when we communicate. 

Kraus says a dyslexic listener might hear the same clip, more like this:

 

There’s a bit of an echo because the neurons aren’t firing in sync.

Here’s the good news: Kraus also firmly believes that our brains can be be trained to hear more clearly. She’s found that musicians and people who are bilingual are able to process sound better than the rest of us.

She gave us a little audio test to prove her point.

First, listen to this quick bit of sound:

  

You couldn’t make sense of it, could you? That’s ok, we couldn’t either. Now, listen to this clip:

 

Finally, listen to that first audio clip again, the one you couldn’t understand the first time.

Now it makes perfect sense, right?

That’s because over the course of a few seconds, you trained your brain to make sense of that first clip. And that is, essentially, what a musician, or someone who speaks a second language, does over the course of years — train their brains to more finely understand the audio around them.