Whispers and Whiskers in a Sea of Air

The Extended World of Sound and Hearing

Fish in a fish bowl
There’s a familiar saying about how fish are presumed to never notice water because their entire life’s experience is immersed in it. It could also be said that we people rarely think about the great bubble of air in which we continuously move, speak, listen, and spend our entire lives. We may notice air’s effects — when smoke rises before us, when our hair is blown about rudely, when our faces are pelted with cold rain while vigorously tilting our umbrellas. We certainly notice when we struggle to draw enough air in during heavy exercise, and at high altitudes we may wish for more of it. But as we negotiate our daily lives, we are unlikely to routinely attend to the constant touch of air against our hands and faces.
 
Yet there’s another aspect of air that is so continuously present that we rarely think of it. It is a form of touch that delivers the thoughts of one person to another, conveying disturbances near and far (sometimes miles away!) to both our subconscious and conscious attention. Without air, there is no familiar sound; without sound, we have no spoken language, no church bells across town, no alerting “ding” from a text message. And regardless of whether we recognize them as such, those are all a kind of touch. This touching is incessant, and it happens through diverse pathways to our neurological interior — the center of all sensations in our brain.

It’s remarkably simple, but we are so immersed in it, we have no need to think about it: Every sound we hear, from “Watch out!” to “I love you,” is a staggered brushing of the air against our skin, a caress in wiggly sequences of oscillation. The skin in question is, of course, at the end of our ear canals — it’s our eardrums that receive most of that vibratory caressing. The air molecules immediately adjacent to that small membranous stretch of skin are continuously nudged by long chains composed of trillions of neighboring molecules, all shaken by injections of energy — a voice? a barking dog? a jet plane roaring miles above and beyond us? The softest, whispered-level sound might move that skin less than half the diameter of a hydrogen molecule, but it unfailingly delights us with secrets, or alerts us with astonishing news.
 

Though we treasure our ears and sense of hearing for this miraculous connection to airborne signals, there are other surprising ways by which those rhythmic currents of air deliver signals into our brains. Scratch your whiskers (if you have them) or your eyebrows, or just run the ridges of your fingers around your face, near your ears. That clearly audible skritching sound — is it normal airborne hearing? Plug your ears and do it again. Still hear it? In all likelihood you are actually experiencing a nonclassical pathway1 through a different sensory mechanism, known as a haptic mechanism, using specialized touch-receptor cells.
 
 
teacher leading a classroomSo when you consider the remarkable sense of hearing, it may surprise you that there are alternative methods with which we are equipped to receive and decode meaningful messages and process countless signals. But fundamentally, regardless of whether we consciously employ whiskers in the pursuit of whispers, we all live and communicate in a bubble of invisible air. It is a shared bubble of acoustic connection. The cello’s sweet voice lays fingered expressions of music against the faces of everyone present in the room, in that particular acoustic fishbowl.

Likewise, a teacher’s words are tapped out in patterned sound touches in classroom bowls, launching young children into new worlds of literacy and knowledge. But when the normal means of audition is impaired by age or any of a variety of assaults, the best-proven solution is high-performance hearing aids and a skilled professional.
 
Written by Christopher Schweitzer, Ph.D.


Dr. Schweitzer serves on the advisory board of Family Hearing Centers in Colorado. He teaches Signals, Systems, and Speech Perception in Salus University’s Graduate Audiology Program and is chief of audiology for Samplified Audiology International. After over 45 years of studied experience, he remains enthralled with the remarkable mysteries of spoken communication.


  • 1Schweitzer C, Biggs J. Non-Classical Auditory Pathways. Audiology Today. May 2014:16–25.