Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Sound of Beauty

Slide from my communications skills training program
The mechanisms by which we communicate with each other are simplified in this graphic, because they’re far more complex. How we get others to see what we have in mind, and how they in turn decipher our efforts to do so, is, for me, an everyday miracle. When we realize that this is a back-and-forth process between two people and, moreover, when we think that in a group of people this becomes a multilinear and curvilinear process, then the fact that communications work is truly astonishing. 

With this said, it is easy to define where media and technology come into play.

Media is the means by which communications happen. It includes time honored means such as letters and telephones; TV and radio (traditional media); and e-mails, Facebook and Twitter (digital media). In many respects, technology enhances our ability and options by which to communicate, for example, smart phones, internet platforms, and bandwidth settings.

So where does the blog title ‘The Sound of Beauty’ come in? Well, it’s in reference to a TED Talk by Charles Limb ‘Building the Musical Muscle.’

(image credit)
Limb is both a physician and a musician, and says that our technology is the most advanced in relation to hearing as opposed to other senses. Still, he laments that it falls quite short of helping a deaf person hear music properly.

The Cochlear Implant has amazingly restored hearing to children who were born deaf, and more importantly the ability for oral communication. Interestingly, however, while this device taps centers in our brain necessary to enable such an ability, it doesn’t tap the very centers to hear music properly.

(image credit)
In this screen shot from his Talk, Limb notes that the Cochlear Implant is optimized for speech (Language), but clearly less so for Rhythm and Melody. It’s a very curious thing, and my readers who are bio-technologists or brain and hearing experts can weigh in on this.

But here are some thoughts.

As a poet, I will tell you that if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the music inherent in speech. It’s not so easy to hear this music in our native language, because we’re habituated around its functionality and not necessarily its art. But listen to others speak in another language, where the sounds of the words and sentences aren’t familiar to us, and we’re more likely to appreciate its music in the pitch and inflections of voice.

So again it’s a curious thing why someone who wears a Cochlear Implant doesn’t hear music properly. If indeed this device is optimized for speech, then I’d think it has the capacity to accommodate music. Perhaps the algorithms embedded into the device need enhancement or modification.

Or perhaps, as Limb approaches it, that person who wears the device simply needs to train his or her brain to hear music and appreciate its beauty.

(image credit)
These are the points that Limb finishes his Talk with, and two final thoughts from me.

Honestly, while this Talk is primarily scientific in nature, I found myself inspired by the functional possibilities of technology for those of us who are disadvantaged in some sort of way.

But I think we’re closer to that fourth point than Limb suggests, as it relates specifically to the deaf, the Cochlear Implant, and music. He’s already demonstrated (a) the capacity of the device to decipher sound (i.e., to accommodate the complexities of communications I talked about earlier) and (b) the capacity of our brain to hear better (i.e., to be trained not only to perform music but also to perceive its beauty).

Restoration of the ability to perceive beauty is inspiring, indeed.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD