All ears

Posted by on Mar 28, 2007 in Uncategorized | No Comments


Curious things, ears. I have a particularly fine pair (which resulted in much amusement for all my childhood chums…).

But today’s fact is this: the ears have it.

Our ears fill us with information about the other people around us – much richer Herd-data than just the content of what they say alone can provide. Indeed, while we tend to think of these things providing colour to the words we speak or hear, perhaps we should view the thing the other way around. Words provide colour to the pitch and timbre of our voices.

The human ear is an amazing organ. It is able to differentiate c1500 different pitches (frequencies) and c 280 levels of loudness. It takes only 60 milliseconds to recognise the timbre of a particular tone. Unlike all the other senses it works largely on mechanical, rather than biochemical means. This makes listening to a human voice a physical experiences in an unusual way: the vibrations literally touch our ears (the middle and inner that is).

And ears seem particularly good for social knowledge: while there is a wide variation across cultures in which of the range of sound qualities are deemed appropriate and meaningful for speech, all humans have an ability to discern the social data (intentions and the like) from the voices of others operating within these culturally, determined bounds

– Some experts in lie-detection claim that a lying voice can be detected because it is always at a higher pitch than normal or at a slower pace (but this is believed to be culturally-limited in its application)

– We in Britain use other peoples voice’s and accents (rather than merely the content of what is said) to play our favourite game of class-pigeonholing.

Robin Dunbar has suggested that the origin of language lies in the vocalisations of our primate ancestors’ grooming, so it’d be no surprise if we turned out to be particularly good at picking up clues about those around us from their tone and pitch, rather than their words…

These two things at the sides of our heads provide us with so much that is useful to our Herd life.

And all the other boys can do is point and laugh at mine

Thanks to jkirschling for factual correction today