Listen up!

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“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” —M. Scott Peck

How many times a day do we “listen” while doing other tasks? How many times do we check our phones while sharing dinner with friends or family? How many times do we look at our computer screen while on a call? Is listening really so easy that we can do it as an afterthought? What are we missing? Am I just going to keep asking questions? Well, no.

For answers, we start with the not-to-simple act of hearing. The process begins with sound entering our cerebral cortex through our ears. Once it connects with our nervous system, our brain translates sound into meaning—music, alarms, car engines, airplanes, bird song, barking, human voices and much more. We attribute meaning to sound—especially conversation—based on experience, knowledge, intonation, facial expressions and body language.

Somehow, brilliantly all of it comes together so that we understand the sounds around us.

Much of this is so ingrained, we don’t notice the process. Since we are so practiced in hearing, we believe it’s the same as listening, something like, I hear therefore I listen.

Add to all that auditory complexity, the fact that while you can walk and chew gum, performance diminishes when doing both tasks at the same time. Studies show multitasking not only causes you to do things more slowly, it increases the number of mistakes you make along the way. This is true for doing activities while listening as well.

Neuroscience research has shown that brain functioning divides when multiple tasks are being done at the same time. Brain fMRIs of people doing more than one task at a time reveal that blood flows to all active areas of the brain, giving less to each area than may be needed for the task to be completed with success. Performance in multitasking will diminish with age making it harder and harder for us to listen while doing other tasks at the same time.

So, give your brain a break. Listen intentionally and see what a difference it makes for you and those in your life.

Try these practices to sharpen this sense:

1. Hone hearing by going outside and listening to the sounds around you. Choose one sound at time, like birds, cars, a waterfall or river, children playing. See if you can focus on each sound so that it becomes the dominant one that you hear.

2. Practice listening only. When you are on the phone walk away from your computer or shut down the screen. Just listen with no distractions.

Active listening brings with it many rewards. As Orion D. Jones writes in The Beautiful Neuroscience of Listening, listening “tunes our brain to the patterns of our environment faster than any other sense, and paying attention to the nonvisual parts of our world feeds into everything from our intellectual sharpness to our dance skills. … The richness of life doesn’t lie in the loudness and the beat, but in the timbres and the variations that you can discern if you simply pay attention.”

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