We Hear What We Listen For

Alarm ClockGood morning! Today I want to talk about an interesting phenomenon that actually happened this morning. It has to do with your mind’s ability to block out what it’s not interested in and only let in what it is trained to let in.

What brought this up was what happened this morning when my alarm went off. I have to admit that I hit the snooze button and jumped back in bed to sleep for 10 more minutes. I actually set my alarm 10 minutes earlier than when I plan to get up. So I lay back in bed and slept a little longer. When my alarm went off again and when I woke up I noticed that my wife was already out of bed. She wasn’t there. She had already gotten up to go wake the boys so they could do their paper route.

I thought it was interesting that I didn’t hear her alarm at all. We both have alarm clocks. They are very similar. They each have a red digital readout and their alarms sound very similar. It’s that annoying beep beep beep sound that today’s alarm clocks typically make. The sounds of the two alarm clocks aren’t that different really. They aren’t exactly the same but very similar. I thought it was interesting that my mind, my brain, is trained to hear my alarm clock and not hers. Her alarm didn’t wake me up but mine did. I thought it was interesting that I hear mine but I don’t hear hers. How can that be?

It makes you wonder about what else in life we don’t see or hear because of what our minds have been trained to see or hear. There is a story I once heard that helps us understand this phenomenon.

WE HEAR WHAT WE LISTEN FOR

Two men were walking along a crowded sidewalk in a downtown business area. Suddenly one exclaimed: ‘Listen to the lovely sound of that cricket.’ But the other could not hear. He asked his companion how he could detect the sound of a cricket amid the din of people and traffic. The first man, who was a zoologist, had trained himself to listen to the voices of nature. But he didn’t explain. He simply took a coin out of his pocket and dropped it to the sidewalk, whereupon a dozen people began to look about them. ‘We hear,’ he said, ‘what we listen for.’ –Kermit L. Long, taken from ‘The Three Boxes of Life,’ by Richard Bolles

We hear what we listen for. What are our minds trained to hear? What are out eyes trained to see? What are we conscious of and what are we unconscious of? What are we paying attention to and what are we not paying attention to?

I have read many times about a function of the brain called the RAS. It stands for the Reticular Activating System. Basically it’s what filters things in our brain. It’s what determines what you notice and what you don’t notice. The example that’s usually given, and it’s a great example because many of us have experienced it, is when you purchase a new car. Suddenly you begin to see that car all around you. You never noticed those cars before but now that you own one it’s on your mind, it’s what’s important to you. It’s not that these cars didn’t exist before, it’s just that you didn’t notice them.

I remember years ago I re-roofed my house. I did it myself and it was a huge project for me to do. It was interesting that during the weeks I was involved in that project, everywhere I drove, I noticed roofs. I never noticed roofs before. But since I was heavily involved in it that’s what I noticed. I think I knew everybody’s roof in the neighborhood, what condition it was in and what color it was, because that’s what I paid attention to. To me that was very interesting that suddenly I paid attention to everybody’s roof.

The down side to this is that by focusing your attention on one thing, in reality you are deleting everything else that your mind and body it receiving inputs from – sights, smells, sounds. So what are you deleting in your life? Is it good or is it bad? I think it can be both ways. If your mind let everything in you would be overwhelmed by the amount of information that would be flowing into your brain. You have to have a way of filtering it so that only those things that are important to you really register and make a difference. But we have to be careful not to be so focused on things that other important things get deleted out of our awareness and out of our lives.

So my message for today is to be aware of what you’re not being aware of, pay attention to what you’re not paying attention to. Make sure that we’re not leaving out the important things in life that we should be paying attention to.

Thank you.

Copyright © 2014 Gary N. Larson