By Team EarPeace
The EARPEACE mission is to enhance the experiences you love by protecting your hearing. We want to be a catalyst for real change in the way people think about their hearing health, and make earplugs that you'll actually wear. Good hearing protection should be like sunscreen - a necessary accessory for your life.
Years ago, I had the excellent fortune to meet Chris Schweitzer, a key advisor and good friend on this journey. I recently read Daniel Levitin’s superb book ‘This Is Your Brain on Music’ and reflected to Chris on wanting to write something that spoke to how cosmically important our hearing is.
Nothing connects us to each other and the universe in the same way sound does. It is unique in bringing us home to ourselves. Our hearing is the miraculous sense that most directly connects us to the vibrations that make up all of it. It's the music of the cosmos and it’s worth keeping. Chris volunteered to give us his take on how all of it - everything in the cosmos - is sound.
Clear Blue Sky
You hear it first, you know it’s up there. So you look up.
Ah, there! A tiny white streak trailing a silver dot. Probably 7 or 8 miles away, headed southeast….faintest roar of identification, but you can hear it! You hear it because it is touching you, begging you to look up!
Touching you? Yes, that jet plane, so incredibly high, just barely visible, is messing with the skin along your face and down along your ear canals.
Your eardrums are a tightly stretched membranous extension of the skin on your face, securely attached to the smallest bones in your body. You’ve got two sets of those remarkable vibe detectors, one on each side of your head.
The little white dot with a trailing streak (in the circle) is a jet airliner over southern France, roughly 4 miles from my roof … after being heard.
THOSE MEMBRANES, OR TYMPANI IN OLD ANATOMY BOOKS, jiggle in an energetic, yet microscopic dance with the rippling atmosphere that lays against your head. The sequential ‘hand off of an enormous chain of those ripples blasted out simultaneously in every direction from the Rolls Royce engines pushing the Airbus along some 40,000 feet above the earth’s hard surface.
Trillions upon trillions of air molecules - above, front, behind, and beneath you - collide in a vast domino-like network of relays. Wiggly collisions of atmospheric molecules are the stuff of your everyday sound experience. And at this otherwise fairly quiet moment that faint roar in the sky signals the passing of a faraway flying machine announcing its immense power. It was carried on down to your awareness as extremely subtle caresses as you looked up over the roofline. Yes, touching you!
Since your entire body shares the same atmosphere that stretches up to those wispy clouds, it’s not just your ears that are nano-tapped by those vibrations, but all of you; all your exposed skin, hair, eyes, etc. Of course, it is your hearing that provides the most familiar sensory experience by means of a remarkable neurological processor – the brain – which happens to be simultaneously managing your heartbeat, respiration, digestion, keeping you from falling over, and, oh yeah- thinking about this stuff.
A DEAFENING ROAR way high above; the faintest of touches across the surface of your body below. You hear that faint roaring engine because your auditory system, starting with the first outer skin layer that forms your ear drums, alerts you to a vast range of these subtle and complex disturbances. Movements of these touches smaller than half the diameter of a hydrogen molecule produce a ‘what’s that sound?’- an alerting sensation when normal hearing persons happen to be awake.
If you could suddenly zoom up to within a few feet of that aircraft, through the ocean of those zillions of oscillating molecules producing infinitesimally small collisions in every direction, the acoustic power there would be 100 trillion times greater (140 dB!). It would also promptly traumatize you, and most likely cause irreversible damage to your hearing system.
But back down at the barely audible threshold level (0 dB HL to an audiologist), the sound energies are only one ten thousandth of a trillionth of a Watt (10-16)) per square centimeter! Not much to brag about to your motorcycle buddies, or sufficient to turn on even the dimmest patio lights.
THE SEQUENTIAL DELIVERY of that chain of oscillation events from the jet engine’s monstrous voice, one molecule at a time banging into each adjacent one on all sides, takes much longer than the streams of photons to your eyes that make it a visible event among the high patches of clouds.
The waves of sound jiggle in a train down to you at a relatively slow speed of about 700 MPH, depending on temperature and air density. Hence, your auditory awareness follows by several seconds the appearance of the contrail streaking behind the plane. That sound/sight time difference is, of course, familiar in thunder following lightning lags.
THE TOUCH OF BILLIONS of air molecules on your skin that lightly bounce against your eardrums deliver auditory sensations over an enormous range of intensities. From ultra-soft thresholds to eyeball shaking and body cavity punching levels that evoke a ‘too damn loud!’ response to your 100+ Watt music party.
Touch lightly, touch severely- it’s still all invisible local air motions against your skin, your personal end point of a chain started somewhere else. Consider then, a simple ordinary conversational exchange. Every moment of spoken conversation - whether directly across the room or through multiple electroacoustic conversions via microphones, digital repackaging, satellite conveyances and back to the speakers or headphones of your phone or computer – it’s still a form of touch when you finally hear it.
Someone (or some many because it’s rare, if ever, that only one source of sound touches us at any given moment) has spoken into our communal ocean of air, and like it or not, they have caressed your skin with analog replicas of their spoken vibrations.
‘Ew!’ you say. ‘Even that jerk on my least favorite news channel?' Yup.
If you heard it, you were touched by it. Weird, huh?
The AT&T telephone ads of 30 and 40 years ago, featured the catchy song lyric, “Reach out, reach out and touch someone.” It’s doubtful, however, that the marketing executives ever imagined how literally correct that line was.
DESPITE HAVING BEEN IMMERSED in auditory sciences for over 40 years, I am still routinely astonished by the miracle of hearing. Gangs of cells a few ‘tens of microns long, working at the picovolt scale, and opening and closing molecular channels thousands of times a second,1” deliver spoken messages to us along with the unspoken sound of distant jets.
Extremes of emotions, warning signals, educational opportunities, musical elation – all are managed and mitigated through the atmosphere that we breathe, the air that never stops wiggling. The experience of sound starts with this form of touch, the bouncing bubbles of air on our skin at frequencies tuned to human sensory gear.
The fact that all matter/energy in the universe is vibrational makes it even more profound and humbling. Jiggle-wiggling is what the world does, and living, evolving, growing requires a means to translate those ceaseless jiggles for processing into received information. Every known form of life has some method of vibratory detection. Air-breathing creatures, like humans, birds and all mammals, evolved exquisitely sensitive systems to receive and integrate the patterns of lighter-than-a feather strokes of air movements. In fact, all life has some form of detection equipment suitable for their environmental space.
IF THE SOFTEST DETECTABLE 'SOUND' for humans was any lower in intensity, we’d be continuously distracted by the Brownian movements, or collisions, of those air molecules in which we are continuously immersed throughout our lifetimes. Meanwhile, down in the mysteries of quantum physics, everything is oscillating in the wavy cloud that is matter/energy - particle/wave.
So, our biological bodies, entirely composed of those quantum clouds, must be making sound, as well as allowing us to hear some of the universal buzz. All the trillions of our biological cells are resonating at GHz rates. Our vibrating atomic bits, like those iron molecules in our blood that wiggle at 10 trillion times a second, are part of the chorus of our personal sonic contributions. We are composed, it would seem, of multitudes of cellular voices humming back out into the world’s cosmic chorus.
Oh no - there’s that ‘vibe’ thing those ancient monks and tie-dyed hippies keep talking about. But chill out! Getting control of vibes is how ultrasound scans are made and gobs of medical and consumer tech devices that ‘tune in’ or amplify mechanical and/or electromagnetic oscillations.
Those include the device(s) that deliver these words in front of you and which have now entered a different dance of oscillating neurons somewhere in the wet meat of your brain. It’s perhaps more than serendipitous that the word ‘person’ is derived from the Latin personare, to sound through ('sound’ in the son part). In other words, your ‘persona’ is distilled in a sonic brew.
YES, WE REALLY ARE MADE OF SOUND
When we follow that most extremely whisper, click, or cough in a quiet room (or the gaiety of a party on a roof) down through the skin of our eardrums, we can perhaps better appreciate the infinite and inescapable connectedness of our existence. Even in these times when airborne virus concerns may require masks over the mouth speaking out those moving messages, the obviously distorted sound pattern still manages to arrive through that same chain of transmission.
But unlike spreading aerosols on which a virus might ride, it’s the air already adjacent to your face that bears the jiggling messages, like a billion batons from a crowd of relay racers. The mask-wearing talker does of course sound muffled, but the same miracle of a thought in one person’s head gets delivered into the mind of another – if they happen to be listening.
underneath it all, there is rhythm. In fact, rhythm – think of the big rolling carrier wave on the ocean upon which many tiny little wavelets ride, is perhaps our most fundamental connection to our lifetime of sound.
The recognition of rhythm begins prenatally in the womb. The mother’s voice, songs, TV ads, kitchen appliances, etc. have been shown to be recognized after birth. Hence, our personal immersion in vibration is a constant from before we're even born. Even after death, the molecules of the leftover dust keep on vibrating. Nothing is ever not oscillating, not 'sounding' at the atomic level. There is no ultimate silence.
From incredibly vast and slow gravitational waves (recently observed in validation of Einstein’s predictions) to ridiculously fast cesium atoms, it’s all a galactic jiggly-wiggly party. So, the next time; yes, the next time you laugh at a party, enjoy some loud mood-lifting music, hop on that motorcycle, crank up those power tools, …. honor the miracle of sound and hearing. Protect your ears. And consider the truth and wisdom of Gloria Estefan – “the rhythm is gonna get you.” Oh, wait, it already has got you.
And you are it. Tat tvam asi, the iconic line in the ancient Vedic text of the Upanishads, translates to ‘thou art that.’*** Or in more common verbiage, ‘You are it!’
The ancients are in apparent agreement with Heisenberg, Bohr, de Broglie, Plank and all those more recent physicists who have probed into the deepest quantum layers of the physical universe. You can’t just experience sound, although you are brilliantly equipped for it. You are made of sound. The evidence is all around you- and literally touching you ever so lightly on the face.
AS FOR THE TINY, FAINT DOT in the blue sky that began this commentary, there is an even more subtle and immaterial item - a thought. Is it anything less than miraculous that a thought, an infinitesimally small and brief vapor of electrochemical activity in the mind of a person, can drift through the air and then enter and influence the mind of another?
History and everyday experience reveal that sometimes such a tiny thought-dot launches a revolutionary idea, a war, or an enduring, vital relationship. When the dancing chain of atoms comes boogey-boarding through earth’s elastic atmospheric molecules to play across the skin of someone’s ears, who knows what amazing things may result?! It’s worth a listen.
H. Christopher Schweitzer, Ph.D., is Director of Hear4-U International. He has enjoyed a multi-decade career in auditory research, teaching and clinical audiology. Currently he provides consulting services for the hearing industry. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
*Horowitz, Seth S., The Universal Sense: How hearing shapes the mind. New York. Bloomsbury USA 2012.
**Schweitzer, H. Christopher, ‘First there was Rhythm’. Hearing Views and Hearing Health & Technology Matters. http://hearinghealthmatters.org/hearingviews/2013/first-rhythm/ 2013.
- ***Watts, Alan, The Book: On the Taboo against knowing who you are. New York. Vintage Books edition (1989) Random House 1966.