What's It Like To Hear Color?
Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Extrasensory.
About Neil Harbisson's TEDTalk
Artist Neil Harbisson was born completely color blind. But thanks to a device attached to his head, he can now "hear" color, which allows him to experience an element that was once invisible.
About Neil Harbisson
Neil Harbisson is an artist, cyborgist and colorologist. His unique experience of color informs his artwork, which before his device the "eyeborg" was strictly black and white. By working with cyberneticist Adam Montandon, Harbisson helped design a lightweight eyepiece that he wears on his forehead that transposes the light frequencies of color hues into sound frequencies. Harbisson's artwork blurs the boundaries between sight and sound. In his sound portraits series, he listens to the colors of faces to create a microtonal chord. In the City Colours project, he expresses the capital cities of Europe in two colors.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
So - so far, we've been talking about how technology can stretch human senses, right? But what if you don't need that technology? And what if you aren't using your senses to their fullest potential without even knowing about it? Well, that - that's Julian Treasure's big idea. Julian studies sound.
JULIAN TREASURE: I'm totally obsessed with sound. It's my life. But do you know something? I think, Guy, that most people are secretly fascinated by sound.
TREASURE: Yeah, we've just got used to, over the last 200 years, to suppressing sound because of the...
(SOUNDBITE OF NOISE MONTAGE)
TREASURE: ...Noise. I mean, there's just so much noise pollution now. And we've just got into the habit of suppressing our sense of hearing. So a big part of my mission in life is to get people listening consciously.
RAZ: Julian's idea is that sound affects your life in a bunch of ways you never even think about. But the flipside of that idea is that becoming aware of sound and really listening, it can actually make our lives a little better. For instance, a couple years ago, the city of Lancaster, in California, was trying to figure out how to keep petty criminals from doing things like stealing purses and harassing shoppers on the main drag. And city officials tried all kinds of crime-prevention techniques, but no luck. So they called Julian, and he installed...
TREASURE: ...Hundreds of all-weather, Bose loudspeakers in the main street called the Boulevards.
RAZ: And those speakers played this soundscape for five hours a day.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOUNDSCAPE)
TREASURE: And what happened, according to the sheriff of Lancaster, Calif., is that crime fell 15 percent after that soundscape...
RAZ: Fifteen percent after that...
RAZ: ...Soundscape came on.
TREASURE: Yep. And they absolutely love it.
RAZ: And, I mean, come on. There's no way this is not bringing your heart rate down a little bit, right? I mean, you've got a little gentle surf in there.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOUNDSCAPE)
TREASURE: The surf, incidentally, that kind of gentle surf has a cadence of roughly 12 cycles per minute, which is very similar to the breathing of a sleeping human being. And so we find it a very restful sound.
RAZ: And the birds?
TREASURE: Just because we've evolved to it over 250,000 years, it's the sound of security because when the birds are singing, generally things are OK.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOUNDSCAPE)
TREASURE: If they suddenly stop, you need to be worrying. You know, at this point, somebody out there will be thinking manipulation because that's the word that I always encounter when I start talking about designing soundscapes.
TREASURE: And the answer I give to that is, do you feel manipulated by architecture? Do you feel manipulated by color? Do you feel manipulated by street layout? Because you are being changed by those things. They are consciously designed. So why would we start to think we're being manipulative the moment we start to design soundscapes?
RAZ: And what Julian argues is that listening is the most undervalued sense we have. But our ability to listen, to really listen, it's slipping away. Here's his TED Talk.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
TREASURE: We are losing our listening. We spend roughly 60 percent of our communication time listening, but we're not very good at it. We retain just 25 percent of what we hear. Now, not you, not this talk, but that is generally true. Let's define listening as making meaning from sound. It's a mental process, and it's a process of extraction. We use some pretty cool techniques to do this. One of them is pattern recognition.
(BACKGROUND CROWD CHATTER)
TREASURE: So in a cocktail party like this, if I say, David, Sarah, pay attention, some of you just sat up. We recognize patterns to distinguish noise from signal and especially, our name.
Differencing is another technique we use.
TREASURE: If I left this pink noise on for more than a couple of minutes, you would literally, cease to hear it. We listen to differences. We discount sounds that remain the same.
Most people are entirely unconscious of these filters, but they actually create our reality, in a way, because they tell us what we're paying attention to right now. I'll give you one example of that. Intention is very important in sound, in listening. When I married my wife, I promised her that I would listen to her every day as if for the first time. Now, that's something I fall short of on a daily basis, but it's a great intention to have in a relationship. I said at the beginning, we're losing our listening. This is not trivial because listening is our access to understanding. Conscious listening always creates understanding. A world where we don't listen to each other at all is a very scary place indeed.
RAZ: And Julian Treasure thinks there are all kinds of things getting in the way of our listening. Just think about all the sounds around you every day. In Europe, where Julian does most of his work...
TREASURE: ...Something like 8 million people are having their sleep seriously disturbed by traffic noise at night.
RAZ: And a lot of the people ride the subway every day, including Julian.
TREASURE: And I wear hearing protectors every time I can.
RAZ: Every time you go.
TREASURE: I'm shocked every day. I see people standing on the cheap station as this screech is happening at a 110, 120 decibels, and they're just standing there.
RAZ: And once you get to work - well, researchers have actually tested people in these noisy, open-plan office environments.
TREASURE: And they found that productivity dropped by two-thirds...
TREASURE: Sixty-six percent drop in productivity in open-plan office types...
RAZ: In open-plan offices.
TREASURE: The bosses, of course, are all in hermetically sealed offices, so they're not even aware that this a problem.
TREASURE: But there's a lot of research now showing that noise, and the lack of quiet working space, is one of the biggest issues for all office workers.
RAZ: What does it do to people?
TREASURE: It creates stress hormones, increases your risk of heart attack. It increases your risk of stroke. And there's a whole range of other issues - sexual dysfunction, bowel dysfunction, depression, psychological disorders - which are associated with living in noisy situations day in and day out.
RAZ: OK, so that's the environmental stuff that Julian says is making it harder for us to listen. But there are also things inside our own heads that get in the way. So, for example, you might notice that sometimes, you know, when you get a group of people together - right? - the conversation isn't really a conversation. People don't often ask other people questions, and they don't really listen. They just sort of take turns telling stories about themselves.
TREASURE: Yes, so I call that speech writing. And it's not really listening, you know. If you're - while the other person's talking, that's just a sort of gap while you're writing your next bon meau...
RAZ: In your mind.
TREASURE: Exactly. That's not actually listening to somebody.
RAZ: And listening takes brainpower. There are studies that show that the human brain can only understand 1.6 conversations at a time, which is enough for one person, and a little bit of your inner monologue.
TREASURE: That's the amount of auditory bandwidth we have. And if you're in an office where you can overhear one person talking right next to you, they're taking up one of your 1.6. We don't have any earlids. And unless you put headphones on, that person's conversation is inevitably going to be decoded in your brain because we're programmed to decode conversation.
RAZ: And the way we listen might also be hard-wired, depending on our gender.
TREASURE: Men tend to listen in, what I call, a reductive way, which is to say for a point, for a solution. You know, we like to have a problem and solve it. Bang. Thank you very much. On to the next thing.
TREASURE: Women tend, on the other hand, to listen in more of an expansive way. It's not about a point. It's not about a solution. It's just about going with the flow and being with the person, and listening and enjoying the journey with them. So you get this mismatch where she comes home and says: I've had a terrible day, darling. It's been absolutely awful. This happened, that happened. And he says: Have a bath, you'll be fine. So I think the two listenings are quite different. And when we become conscious of our filters, then we can start to play with them and change our listening position. And that is a very, very powerful thing to do.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
TREASURE: So I'd like to share with you exercises, tools you can take away with you, to improve your own conscious listening. Would you like that?
UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBERS: Yes.
TREASURE: Good. The first one is silence. Just three minutes a day of silence is a wonderful exercise to reset your years, and to recalibrate so that you can hear the quiet again. If you can't get absolute silence, go for quiet. That's absolutely fine. Second, I call this the mixer. So even if you're in a noisy environment like this, and we all spend a lot of time in places like this, listen in the coffee bar to how many channels of sound can I hear?
How many individual channels in that mix am I listening to? You can do it in a beautiful place as well, like a lake. How many birds am I hearing? Where are they? Where are those ripples? It's a great exercise for improving the quality of your listening. And finally, an acronym. The acronym is RASA, which is the Sanskrit word for juice or essence. And RASA stands for receive, which means pay attention to the person, appreciate - making little noises like hm, oh, OK, summarize - the word "so" is very important in communication, and ask - ask questions afterwards.
RAZ: I love that. I mean, that - 'cause that's what I do, right? I talk to people, and I ask them questions. And I listen to them.
RAZ: And I love doing it. It's a real gift that I get to have.
TREASURE: Do you know, I often think that listening is the most generous gift you can give to another human being. And many people have never had that experience.
TREASURE: I often have said to my teenage children as they're looking down, doing something on their phone, and they're saying I am listening. I say no, that's not listening. But when you think about it, we've got four ways of communicating - reading, writing, speaking, listening. We spend all our time teaching reading and writing. We spend absolutely no time at all, in most schools, teaching either speaking or, more importantly still, listening.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
TREASURE: And if we can teach listening in our schools, we can take our listening off that slippery slope to that dangerous, scary world that I talked about, and move it to a place where everybody is consciously listening all the time - or at least capable of doing it. Now, sound is my passion. It's my life. I wrote a whole book about it, so I live to listen. That's too much to ask for most people.
But I believe that every human being needs to listen consciously in order to live fully; connected in space and in time to the physical world around us, connected in understanding to each other, not to mention spiritually connected because every spiritual path I know of has listening and contemplation at its heart. So I invite you to connect with me, connect with each other, take this mission out. And let's get listening taught in schools and transform the world, in one generation, to a conscious listening world; a world of connection, a world of understanding, and a world of peace. Thank you for listening to me today.
RAZ: Julian Treasure is the chairman of the Sound Agency. He's got four TED Talks, all of them pretty spectacular - and all of them at TED.com.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: You say that I've lost all good sense, but don't believe it's true. I couldn't see, hear, smell or feel before I was seeing you. Now I'm feeling things I've never felt and my sight has been restored. I'm using all my senses like I've never used before. I'm using all my senses like I've never used before...
RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to this episode, "Extrasensory." If you missed any of it, or you want to hear more or you want to find out more about who was on it, you can visit TED.NPR.org. You can also find many more TED Talks at TED.com, and you can download this show through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.