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The Neurological Conditioning of Sound

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.

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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.

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Tree graph provided by The ecology of human fear: survival optimisation and the nervous system.

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.

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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.

Throughout human history we have devised alarms that alert us to small and large dangers. As humans gathered into larger groups and more permanent settlements, we artificially conditioned ourselves to respond to alarms that would warn us of incoming danger of all kinds. From early fire alarms alerting 100 people that a building is on fire, to tsunami alarm-systems alerting millions to get to high-ground, the story of alarms is largely the story of civilisation.

We hear dozens of conditioned alarms without even realising it such as car horns, police sirens, school bells, and most pertinently, the digital songs, sounds, and notifications of our everyday consumer technology.

Today, most people will wake up and listen to sounds they have been conditioned to hear. For instance, some may incorporate a specific upbeat song into a wakeup or workout routine. Others may play particular songs that can be associated to the memories of romantic thoughts and relationships. Even outdoor concerts and music venues can function as places of establishment and communication of tribal signatures such as identity and mating readiness.

A popular, catchy summer song (Daft Punk’s Get Lucky comes to mind for 2013) may define an entire summer, not just in one country, but around the world. Together these songs — whether associated most to a workout, romantic date, or summer party — represent rituals of emotional outputs or certain moods.

It’s no secret that sound designers today take great interest in our emotional conditioning to particular and ubiquitous sound. In fact, how past societies have interpreted sound historically is a large part of a sound designers inspiration to understanding how to select the right ding for your app.

For instance, the talking drum of West Africa is an interesting and unusual example. The drum was specifically designed to make a variety of sounds that emulate human speech, giving it a basic but intuitive beat-like vocabulary. This made the drum an effective signalling device for long-distance communication between remote African villages.

Upon drumming a beat, other far away drums would hear the signal and pass on the beat-like message similar to how a torch runner passes on a flame to another torch. Perfectly sophisticated, too; only weeks after Abraham Lincoln’s death, news of the tragedy and its complex implications had penetrated the African interior on the drum.

From an anthropological and sound design perspective, the drum of West Africa was far beyond any other audible communication device of its day. By communicating a wide variety of messages based on rhythm, tone, and strength, its sound was designed perfectly for what it was needed for. It was an ideal, early, and elegant solution to a common problem villages had when communicating. The outcome was that three strong beats meant an attack was coming. This would conditions other villages to be prepared to mobilize together and defend an alliance.

Today sound design has transitioned greatly in its effort to convey messages. We have gone from the drawn out drum beats of the Savannah, to the binary pings of morse code, to the monotonous buzzes of the pager, and now to the myriad of pinging sounds from our smartphones.

The outcome is that we have become conditioned to the smartphone the same way we are conditioned to a fire alarm or West African drum beat. For some, the ding of a social media message can bring forth excitement, butterflies to the stomach, or even a sigh of relief.

The video above contains a recording of an all too familiar sound in our current pandemic times: the Zoom incoming call ringtone. The deliberately interchanging of high-pitch and medium-pitch notes resembles a non-threatening plea or cry for attention, which repeated can quickly turn into an aggressively annoying noise that must be addressed. Sounds are a major tool in the software and hardware developer’s arsenal to usher the types of emotional reactions intended of the user. We respond instinctively to natural sounds — which can trigger any set of emotions. We also respond instinctively to artificial sounds, who are most effective at doing so when they mimic sounds that we are already conditioned to.

Nowhere is emotional conditioning to sound more prevalent than in our current and historic use of social media. Take for example the now-retired Facebook Messenger notification. For some, hearing that sound will transport them back to 2013. Perhaps they will associate that sound with a lost love creating an neurological output of emotional pain. However, for most of us today, the ding of a social media app gears the brain to expect some form of social gratification.

Indeed, before even glancing at our screens to see who it is that liked our last photo or sent us a message, we begin to imagine the realm of possibilities for who may be trying to contact us. Is it a crush? Is it a friend inviting you to that party you wanted to go? With every chat, comes an expectation, and the stronger that expectation is emotionally, the stronger you will be conditioned emotionally to that sound.

When distinct and repeated sensory stimuli, like UI sounds, are paired with feelings, moods, and memories, our brains build bridges between the two.

– Rachel Kraus

As devices, software applications, and apps become omnipresent, the User Interface (UI) sounds they emit — the pings, bings, and bongs vying for our attention — have also started to contribute to the sonic fabric of our lives. And just as a song has the power to take you back to a particular moment in time, the sounds emitted by our connected devices can trigger memories, thoughts, and feelings, too.

A word of advice from someone who has felt the anxiety of a message tone and the sadness of an old song, I believe all of us today should be more aware of how digital sounds can be tuned to condition our emotional lives. Like Pavlov’s dogs, Silicon valley is conditioning our usage of their products to expect social gratification from the various dings and boops of our devices. We need to learn to expect these feelings from the outside world, not from the digital world inside our pockets.

Only then can we begin to clean up the noise and listen to the music.

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“Who we are is not just the neurons we have,” Santiago Jaramillo, a University of Oregon neuroscientist who studies sound and the brain, said, referring to cells that transmit information. “It’s how they are connected.”

Alessandro Penno

Alessandro Penno

In today’s tool-driven world, technology is at the forefront of human ambition, interconnectivity, and understanding. As a keen humanist, with a mind for product and an eye for design, Alessandro's ultimate aim is to deliver a fresh user experience in the journalism space.