Advanced Pediatric Therapies

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The Amazing Auditory System

on April 11, 2016

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Like the other senses we have discussed in previous weeks, listening is much more than the simple sense it appears to be.  A sound is made, we hear it.  Right?  But listening is so much more than that.  It involves a subtle and and delicate dance between the organs involved in hearing and the brain.  It influences so many other areas of our responses and even our behavior.  Let’s take a brief tour of your auditory system and how it relates to how we perceive the world around us.

Sound is first received by the outer ear and then funneled into the tympanic membrane which uses vibration to transmit the signal.  After passing through a series of other intricately designed structures, the fluid-filled inner ear receives the signal into the cochlea.  The cochlea then separates the sound into frequencies, which travel on its basilar membrane.  Hair cells, in turn, convert the sound into an electrical signal which go on to the auditory nerve, then the brainstem.  Auditory information is then interpreted by multiple areas of the brain and on to the auditory cortex.  Here is where the magic happens, where the brain interprets the sound.  All of this happens in a split second!

This is when listening happens.  Listening is a more complex process in that it involves your child’s whole brain and their whole body.  It connects them to the world outside themselves.  Listening forms the groundwork for skills your child will need throughout their lives.  It helps them to interact with you, first by gazing in your direction when you speak or sing to them.  It helps them to learn to speak, after they have models of you, your family, friends and even radio or Sesame Street.  It is the basis for reading as well as writing and thus is the root of communication.  Listening, like the other senses, does not occur in isolation.  It needs them to give a whole body orientation to the world.

Listening begins in the womb.  The movement of the mother is felt through the fetus’ receptors and at the same time, they are hearing her heartbeat and breath.  The muffled sounds of her voice and other sounds such as music are linked with movements from dancing, vacuuming and laughter.  The sounds are conducted and “felt” through the fetus’ bones and joints.  Rhythmic sounds and movement are comforting to the developing fetus.  As the baby develops and after they are born, sounds are a constant motivator to move, whether that be by lifting their head to look at a sibling or crawling their way into the kitchen to find you as you make the noises of making dinner.

What you may not know is that listening is also instrumental in keeping us aware of space.  Think about the last time you played hide and seek. While your eyes were closed, weren’t you also listening for where the person went, and therefore where in the space they were hiding?  Listening also plays a part in arousal, or how well we are able to match our alertness to the task at hand.  Recent studies are pointing to listening to music as a helpful background to homework.  Listening, because of it’s close proximity to the vestibular system, is also involved in keeping us focused and able to concentrate.  The auditory and vestibular systems sit next to each other physically in the inner ear, but are also sidekicks in the neurophysiology of interpreting sound and interpreting the 3 dimensions of space that you and your child inhabit every day (Frick, 2009).

Listening has long been known to have survival value.  When you hear a sound like a siren, your brain interprets that sound, and you slow down and look in your rear view mirror.  If you heard a sound like the roar of a tiger, you would seek shelter!  Although your awareness of the process is subcortical, meaning you don’t have to actively think about it or do it, your auditory system is constantly scanning the environment for threats or sounds which may signal attention is needed (Frick, 2009).  This could be your baby crying or a child calling for help.  When your brain receives these sounds, your whole body responds.  You actively look for your child.  Your body jumps up from a chair.  The expression on your face may even change, reflecting your concern.  For your child, it could be the call of a teacher or the phone ringing or the sound of their favorite video game. Listening enables the body to react.

What you can do to encourage listening in your child: 

  • Dance!  Not only is it a great workout for you, it helps to integrate sound and movement experiences.
  • Play hide and seek.  Don’t be afraid to shout hints so they can localize where you are.
  • Keep instructions simple at first.  Sometimes visual instructions can help assist verbal instructions (make a map for a treasure hunt).
  • Play “telephone” with available props.
  • Simon Says.
  • Read books out loud and act out the scenes.
  • Rock your child while using comforting words when they are upset.
  • When you hear a sound, ask them what to do.  For example, “I hear rain, what should we bring so we stay dry?” or “I hear the bus coming.  Are your shoes on?”  or ” I hear your sister.  Where do you think she is?”

Listening, like all the other senses, connects us from within our bodies to the outside world.  It is a source of joy, of connection, of safety and attention.  I hope this serves as a reminder of just how vital the auditory system is, and helps us all appreciate our ears and our brains a little more.

 

 

Listening with the Whole Body:Clinical Concepts and Treatment Guidelines for Therapeutic Listening. Frick, Sheila and Young, Sally.  Vital Links, 2009.

 

 

from an article I wrote for kidsmoveandtalk February 2016
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