How we Listen
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    Learning and Listening

    To become a good learner, one has to become a good listener. That is easier said than done, but fortunately Tomatis has developed a highly effective method to make you a good listener, and thereby a better learner.  

    Hearing and listening are not one and the same. As you will see, there is a huge difference between the two. It is good "listening" we are after. However, good hearing is the foundation of good listening! Therefore, we will then look at those aspects of hearing that impact our listening ability.  We will also look at what else our ears do for us. You are in for an interesting ride into a land of science, unknown to many people. Ready?

    Excellent Hearers and Poor Listeners

    Listening is a specialized form of hearing.  Listening, not hearing, is the primary function of the ear. Tomatis makes a clear distinction between hearing and listening:


    Hearing is a passive process. It is merely detecting the sounds around us.


    Listening is an active process. It requires the conscious desire to determine the meaning of what we hear.

    We can have excellent hearing but be poor listeners. Many children with learning difficulties or attention deficit have excellent hearing, according to the school audiologist, but still cannot read well or concentrate. Their problem is a listening problem, not a hearing problem. 

    Good hearing is the foundation of good listening, making sense of what we hear. So, what type of hearing problems could lead to listening, and thus learning problems? That is the topic of the next chapters.

    Managing the Body

    The function of the ear is much too complex to describe fully here. For our purposes, we will focus on a few functions only. When sounds enter the ear, they first come to the eardrum. Like a musical drum, it needs to be stretched. That is done by two tiny muscles that control the hammer and the stirrup. If they are too weak (because of recurring ear infections, for example), sounds do not enter the inner ear well, but are distorted. One of the breakthroughs of Tomatis is that he has been able to come up with a Listening Program to tune up these muscles. We will talk about the benefits of this program later on.

    Once the sounds enter the inner ear, they stimulate the vestibule, and are analyzed by the cochlea. The vestibule is the most ancient part of the ear. It controls balance, coordination, muscle tone, and every single muscle in our body, including the muscles of our eyes. It helps us to fight the pull of gravity and is actively involved in each step that leads the brain to process sensory information. Eye-hand coordination, strangely enough, also depends on the good functioning of the ear! Walking, dancing, running, riding a bike, climbing stairs or a cliff, writing a letter are all activities requiring the vestibular system to work optimally. It also constantly informs us about our body moving through space. The vestibule is really the manager of our body.

    What are the signs of vestibular dysfunction? Poor posture, clumsiness, jerky or fidgety movements, messy handwriting, poor sensory integration, avoidance of physical activities or sports are often signs of a sign of vestibular dysfunction. Because the vestibule affects so many of our basic functions, children or adults with vestibular difficulties often have learning disabilities.

    Jean Ayres, a pioneer in the study of sensory integration, pointed out that when the vestibule is under-stimulated, children can become hyperactive. To compensate for the lack of auditory stimulation, the child will move around continuously. Unfortunately, the kid does not get a lot of benefit from it, as the vestibule is not able to translate it into a genuine stimulation of the brain.

    Hearing too Much

    Can hearing too much harm us? Yes, it can. To become a good listener, we need not only to be able to "zoom in" on information as but also to "zoom out" (or filter out) irrelevant background information. Good listeners have a zoom lens in their ears!


    Good listeners hear the sounds and all their nuances correctly. Good listeners push irrelevant stimuli to the background. Good listeners focus and concentrate. Good listeners do not feel disturbed by the bombardment of sensory information we all get. Good listeners sort and organize the relevant information into meaningful hierarchies.



    Poor listeners, on the other hand, don't have the ability to "zoom out", filter out irrelevant information. Poor listeners have only one defensive against this continuous bombardment of information: to tune out. That is what ADD children and adults do.

    So, why do some people lack this defensive? Jean Ayres relates this problem to a vestibular problem. In this case, the vestibule does not act as a gatekeeper. It lets everything through. There is an additional reason, but to understand this one, we have to introduce a new concept. 

    The "Other Ear"

    We don’t hear with our ears only. We also hear through the bones of our body. Bone, indeed, conducts sound very well. When we talk, we hear ourselves through our ears (air conduction) and through the vibrations of our bones (bone conduction). That is why we do not recognize our own voice when it is recorded. The tape recorder only records the sounds transmitted through the air. It records what other people hear. The voice we hear inside will thus never be the voice others hear and what the tape recorder registers. That’s why people often swear that the voice on the tape is not theirs. Still, we each know it’s ours because the words and inflections are ours. 

    In order to learn, we need to be able to hear the internal bone vibrations. If, for whatever reason, we’ve tuned these vibrations out, learning becomes very difficult. They are the vibrations that make the internal sound when we read silently. They are the thoughts that we hear just milliseconds before we speak. 

    When a door is slammed without warning, or the tires of a car suddenly screech in the street, our body shudders instinctively. That's because we felt the sound before we heard it. Our body reacted faster than our ears. Bone conduction momentarily took over air conduction. Interestingly enough, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) children and adults experience this all the time. People with ADHD and ADD  listen too much with their bodies, they hear too much through bone conduction. The problem is that they do not have a mechanism to selectively screen out sensory information that enters through the body. Therefore, people with ADD and ADHD have to either


    Pay attention to all input 
    When they do so, they feel bombarded, overwhelmed, even by the smallest stimulus. Logically, they'll become frustrated, angry or anxious. They will never be able to concentrate on any given topic, because in the meantime they've to pay attention to the next input. In short, they will behave as someone who is attention deficit.


    Screen all input out. 
    When they do so, they will become lethargic and very quiet. They stop focusing on what they hear. That is really a pity since many ADD and ADHD children and adults are bright and often extra-sensitive, a source of creativity. But, as long as they cannot focus, this potential more often remains a dream than a reality. 

    At the Tomatis Centers, we'll train your ears to become the main entrance to sounds, and make your bone conduction the secondary entrance. That way, the sounds can be processed in the correct way.  We'll do it by having you listen to gated music through a special headphone that is equipped with a vibrator. Through the vibrator you'll listen with your body, at the same time as you listen with your ears. Over time, you will adjust to listening primarily with your ears. Desensitizing the bone conduction reduces the stress and gives one the ability to pay attention and learn more effectively.

    We will also train you to correctly use the bone conduction. One of its functions is to forewarn the ear that sound is coming. This can be best illustrated with an example. When you want someone to really pay attention, you tap them on their shoulder and say: hey listen! The function of the bone is exactly the same: it says to the ear: hey listen! Ideally, the ear should obey to this command almost instantaneously. In people with ADD and ADHD, however, it can take a relatively long time. So, their ears are not ready to process the incoming sounds in time. Fortunately, we can remedy this.  When we start the training, will send the sounds to the bone a long time before it is sent to the ear (up to 250 milliseconds in case of severe Attention Deficit). Over time we will gradually reduce the interval to a few milliseconds only, getting your brain adjusted to the proper use of your bone conduction.

    Children with autism often suffer unbearable pain because of auditory hypersensitivity. When you "feel too much", you cannot pay attention. Unconsciously, you will cut off the source of your suffering and become aloof and detached. 

    When we work with autistic children and adults, our first goal is to desensitize them (paradoxically through the use of sounds).

    The Discriminating Ear

    Sound is a very complex mixture of hundreds of frequencies, of varying intensities. Even the most sophisticated computers have trouble analyzing it. That is why "voice recognition systems" are still so imperfect. The part of our ear that is responsible for analyzing sounds is called the cochlea. It must analyze the sounds quickly and accurately. People with dyslexia often have problems in this respect.

    The cochlea's first task is to analyze which frequencies the sound contains. That is easier said than done. Each sound has a base frequency and so called "higher harmonics." Some sounds have nearly the same base frequency, and differ only in the higher harmonics. For example, a "B" and "P" have similar base frequencies; likewise, a "T" and a "D." Computers have difficulties telling them apart, and so have learning disabled people. When someone says to them "Bob," they are not sure what was said: it could be "Bob" or "Pop." By the time they have figured out what was said, the speaker is already in his next sentence. Consequently, they process language at a slower rate than those whose ear works well. They have an auditory processing delay problem! Still those children or adults swear that they do hear well; furthermore, a hearing test does not show any hearing loss. 

    What would you do if you had such a problem? At first, you would do your utmost to catch up, costing you a lot of energy. You may get exhausted, be constantly tired. You would now and then answer the wrong question, making you feel dumb. At one point in time, after having tried too many times in vain, you may decide to bail out. You do not really pay attention to what people say any more. Lacking the stimulating discussions, you stop growing. Behind your back, people are saying that you are not very smart, and somewhat immature. To make things worse, auditory processing problems make reading a struggle as well.

    Reading is a complex act that requires the ears and eyes to work together synchronously. As your eyes see a letter of the alphabet, your ears identify the corresponding sound. Then, the vestibule leads your eyes from letter to letter and the cochlea translates each letter into a sound. Ideally, both operations should happen almost simultaneously. The trouble starts when the delay is too long and prevents the synchronization of the eyes and ears.

    To make things more complicated, each sound lasts a specific time. The ear constantly has to adjust to these rapid changes. When it does not, the eyes and ears are no longer in synch. The right sound is not put together with the right letter. Without the sound, the letter remains dead. The meaning cannot emerge. The dyslexic is left second-guessing, hoping for a miracle, taking the chance to utter finally a sound that might fit the letter of the alphabet dancing on the page.

    Most auditory processing problems can be addressed by reprogramming the way we listen. It makes a huge difference: not only will we learn more easily, but our thinking will become clearer and our organizational skills make a quantum leap. 

    The Learning Ear

    Did you know that your right ear has a different job to do than your left ear?  Did you know that we all have a dominant ear? Did you know that it makes a hell of a difference whether your right or left ear is your dominant ear? Tomatis discovered that people who are right ear dominant learn much more easily than those who are left ear dominant. In hindsight, that is quite logical. The right ear is directly connected to the left brain, the brain that processes language. That is a direct, fast connection. If you listen with your left ear, the sounds first go to the right brain.  That part of the brain has no language center and, therefore, the information has to be rerouted to the left brain via the Corpus Callosum.  Because that’s a longer pathway, the information is delayed. Left-ear-dominant people thus have to play catch-up all the time. Not only is the information late, it is also incomplete. In the transfer from the right brain to the left brain, some of the higher frequencies are lost. As we have seen before, these are the frequencies that are key to distinguish similar sounds (like a B and a P). Left-ear-dominant people thus not only have to play catch-up, they also have to play with an incomplete deck.

    Tomatis also discovered that our speech is controlled by our ears. People who are right-ear dominant are better able to control the parameters of voice and speech … its intensity, frequency, timber, rhythm, flow of sentences. It is one of the reasons why many great actors and singers trained with Tomatis!

    Ear dominance also impacts our emotional well-being. In 1975, Badenhorst, a researcher, wrote:

     “Right-ear dominant subjects displayed a superior capacity to relate spontaneously and appropriately to emotional stimuli.  They also displayed a more extroverted orientation, were more responsive and in control of their emotional responses and were less prone to anxiety, frustration and aggression.”

    The Tomatis Listening Program will help you use your right ear more effectively. Towards the end of the program, we'll gradually shift the sounds from the left ear to the right ear. You'll also do some reading exercises through a microphone coupled with our electronic equipment. We'll filter your voice and return it exclusively to your right ear. Over time, you'll become right ear dominant, and read, learn and speak better.

    More Than Hearing

    When we think about our ears, we usually focus on hearing. That is certainly the most obvious function, but there is more to the ear than hearing. Tomatis point out that several functions of the ear are as important. All of these functions are taken into account in the Tomatis Listening Program .


    Our ears control balance, coordination, verticality, muscle tone and the muscles of our eyes. This is the role of the vestibule. The vestibule is also an important relay for all the sensory information that our body sends to our brain. Children who have vestibular problems, often have sensory integration difficulties.


    Our ears analyze sounds, which is especially important for language comprehension. This is done in the Cochlea.


    Our ears relay all sensory information to the brain. To achieve this, the vestibule and the cochlea have to work in perfect harmony. They act as a relay station between the nervous system and the brain. Touch, vision and hearing, all are interpreted through our vestibular-cochlear system.


    Our ears give us energy. Our ears play an important role in stimulating the brain. Tomatis says it this way: "The ear can be compared to a dynamo (a powerful motor) which transforms the stimulations it receives into neurological energy intended to feed the brain." When the brain is well "charged", there seems to be no lack of energy to innovate, imagine or create. However, not all sounds act alike:


    High frequency sounds energize the brain, creating what Tomatis calls "charging sounds".


    Low frequency sounds drain energy away and tend to wear us out. They make our bodies move, by activating the semicircular canals of the vestibule. If those sounds keep on going, our bodies keep moving to the point of exhaustion. This effect can be observed easily in people listening to rock or rap music. 

    Most children or adults with a good musical ear get plenty of "Ear Energy", and rarely experience low energy or feelings of depression. On the other hand, hyperactive children may be moving around constantly in an attempt to "charge" their brain through vestibular activities. People whose brains don’t "charge" well are likely to be at a disadvantage when confronted with the many challenges they face in a fast-paced society like ours.

    Common Causes of Listening Problems

    During our lives, many events can affect our ability to hear and to listen, causing the appearance of learning disabilities. Perhaps, it’s not so much a learning disability as a listening inability. Here are just a few common ones:



    Re-occurring ear infections or earaches, especially during the time that language abilities are developed (age 1 through 5). When children have ear infections, they hear muffled sounds. Under those conditions, it is very difficult to learn language and listening skills. 



    Exposure to emotionally traumatizing situations can make someone withdraw and shut down their desire to hear and listen. We can find traumatizing situation everywhere: in households, neighborhoods, school classrooms, care-giving environments, jobs, etc.



    Premature birth or other birthing complications can lead to learning or developmental delays. If the fetus hasn’t had the proper time to develop in the womb, it can cause slowdowns in learning and communication for many years to come. The same hold true if physical difficulties occur during the birthing process.



    Exposure to loud sounds over extended periods of time will prompt the ear to "tune out" certain frequencies as a way to protect itself. As a result they lose their ability to listen well, and become less apt to learn well.


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    We suggest to now read the chapter on the research on the effectiveness of the Tomatis Method (Next). 

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