01 04 2021
| By Alessandro Penno
The greatest weapon in a sound designer’s arsenal is the mere fact that we listen first and react second. Join us as we briefly explore the neurological, anthropological, and digital histories behind how we interpret sound and why not everything you hear should sound like the truth.
Remember that time when you were alone in that quiet house for the first time and heard a creepy sound? Maybe it was a windy day and the floor creaked and the window bellowed. That sound you heard, was clearly the logical result of wind pushing into a creaky wooden structure, yet the auditory impact is interpreted by the hypothalamus (a small but very important part of your brain that regulates fight or flight) as a threat.
Your thoughts quickly flow into scenarios: is it a ghost? Or perhaps a robber? For the first five seconds these possibilities are all you might consider. They dominate your imagination and thought processing. Until the rational side of your brain — granted some time passed without other similarly scary sounds — convinces you that the sound is nothing to be afraid of. But part of you still believes that, during those first five seconds, you actually saw, or at least heard, a spooky ghost making that sound.
If you are unlucky enough to believe you have witnessed paranormal activity, you can consider yourself conditioned. In humans, conditioning is part of a behavioural repertoire of intelligent survival mechanisms supported by our neurobiological system.These underlying mechanisms promote adaptation to changing ecologies and efficient navigation of natural dangers. In this case, you have been conditioned to be aware of a sound attached to a particular danger.
Conditioning is a big reason why our brains don’t like to be surprised. Otherwise known as the Survival Optimization System (SOS), our response to most danger usually begins with a sound. This is because, as far as the human experience goes, you hear way faster than you see and at over 300,000 kilometers per second, sound gets into the ear so fast that it modifies all other input and sets the stage for it.
We hear first and listen second because in this Darwinian struggle we call life, it’s considerably faster and more effective for our brains to react to the possibility of a threat then to wait for its validity. Thus, the bi-product of a ghostly trauma, is a deep mechanistic rewiring of our neurobiological system to that specific occurence of sound. So for at least the near future, any sounds you hear alone in a quiet house will trigger your brain’s survival mechanisms and neurobiological nervous system to react fearfully to the potential presence of a spooky ghost.
Yet, conditioning doesn’t only happen with things that scare us. As we said before, conditioning is a natural process the brain undergoes when faced with repetitive sensory information. It is a software-like response that codes a defence mechanism into our subconscious reactions.
In psychology, sound conditioning is defined as:
A process in which a stimulus that was previously neutral, comes to evoke a particular response, by being repeatedly paired with another stimulus that normally evokes the response.
A classic example of a sound conditioning experiment is the Pavlov Experiment which sought to establish if salivation in dogs could be caused with the pairing of a bell sound stimulus. Everytime Pavlov rang the bell, he would feed the dogs. After doing this repeatedly, the pairing of food and bell eventually established the dog’s conditioned response of salivation to the sound of the bell. After repeatedly doing this pairing, Pavlov removed the food and when ringing the bell the dog would salivate.
What the Pavlov experiment demonstrated is that most intelligent animals, including humans, given sensory repetition, are capable of experiencing a conditioned response to a conditioned stimulus. It’s a big reason why we people listen for cars before crossing the road, why particular songs make us remember the past, and in a more humorous sense, why children run after the ice cream truck.
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