Hearing, Listening, Attention and Cartoons


Steamboat Willie, Walt Disney Studios, 1928

by Bill Benzon

Neuroscientist Seth Horowitz has an interesting piece in the New York Times: The Science and Art of Listening. He talks of hearing as the passive registering of sound; listening, however, requires active attention. Hearing is fast while vision is slow: “While it might take you a full second to notice something out of the corner of your eye, turn your head toward it, recognize it and respond to it, the same reaction to a new or sudden sound happens at least 10 times as fast.” And hearing is operative 24/7. It can operate in the dark, around barriers, and serves as an alarm.

I want to focus on Horowitz’s remarks on attention:

Attention is not some monolithic brain process. There are different types of attention, and they use different parts of the brain. The sudden loud noise that makes you jump activates the simplest type: the startle. A chain of five neurons from your ears to your spine takes that noise and converts it into a defensive response in a mere tenth of a second — elevating your heart rate, hunching your shoulders and making you cast around to see if whatever you heard is going to pounce and eat you. This simplest form of attention requires almost no brains at all and has been observed in every studied vertebrate.

More complex attention kicks in when you hear your name called from across a room or hear an unexpected birdcall from inside a subway station. This stimulus-directed attention is controlled by pathways through the temporoparietal and inferior frontal cortex regions, mostly in the right hemisphere — areas that process the raw, sensory input, but don’t concern themselves with what you should make of that sound. (Neuroscientists call this a “bottom-up” response.)

But when you actually pay attention to something you’re listening to, whether it is your favorite song or the cat meowing at dinnertime, a separate “top-down” pathway comes into play. Here, the signals are conveyed through a dorsal pathway in your cortex, part of the brain that does more computation, which lets you actively focus on what you’re hearing and tune out sights and sounds that aren’t as immediately important.

In this case, your brain works like a set of noise-suppressing headphones, with the bottom-up pathways acting as a switch to interrupt if something more urgent — say, an airplane engine dropping through your bathroom ceiling — grabs your attention.

I believe that the top-down system extends into the ear itself. That is, there are pathways from the cortex through the auditory nerve and into the cochlea, the hearing organ of the inner ear. These top-down connections regulate the sensitivity of individual auditory neurons, turning up the “gain” on some and turning it down on others.

Hearing is the sense that allows individuals to lend their minds to the deeply collaborative and collective process of music-making, but also, that of conversation. And it’s the sense that Walt Disney conjoined with vision in a new way in Steamboat Willie, the first cartoon with synched sound to attract a large audience, though it wasn’t the first cartoon to use sound. What is it about the close synchronization of sound and sight that made that cartoon, and others that followed, so compelling?

I don’t know. In this passage about the Rite of Spring episode of Fantasia I get perhaps half way to an answer:

Why were these cartoons so popular? Novelty value no doubt accounts for some of the initial impact. But I believe that more that mere novelty is at issue. These cartoons were new in a very special way: they presented the human sensorium with a new kind of multi-modal stimulation. It is one thing to experience a new taste or smell, a new melody or a new musical instrument, or a new kind of story, e.g. a trip to the moon. Those are all new examples of familiar kinds of experience. These sound-synchronized cartoons provided a new kind of experience.

Think of the relationship between images and sounds in the natural world. Sounds, of course, are very important. We have the vocal cries of communication. We also have sounds as indicators of things unseen. But how often do you both see something and hear it in tight synchrony? If something falls to the ground while you are watching and makes a sound, that’s one case, and there are others like it. If any animal moves in a noisy way, again while you are watching, that’s another case. But it is not, in general, the case that what you see and what you hear are tightly synchronized. Steamboat Willie changed that and thus afforded people an arena of novel, and thus exciting, experiences.

That’s very important. A new experience is one thing. A new KIND of experience, that’s something else, a very rare something else. That’s half-way to our answer. The rest of the answer would be an account of why that particular kind of experience is so compelling.

And yet the academic treats this new kind of experience as a poor stepchild to live action movies, which, in turn, must take a second seat to written texts. I understand that we are heirs to a rich legacy of profound and fascinating written texts, and scripts to be acted on the stage. Now that we’re a decade into the 21st Century it’s about time the academy took a giant leap into the 20th, no?

Piece originally posted at New Savannah | Creative Commons License