Hearing vs. Listening: They're very Different!
"You never told me that.”
"Yes, I did, but you weren’t listening. You never listen to anything I say!”
Does that little conversation sound familiar? I’d venture to guess that most couples have had some version of that exchange more than once. I remember my parents having a similar exchange more than once. Communication between the genders is the subject of many, many books, daytime talk shows, jokes, and conversations between girlfriends. And for good reason; effectively communicating with a partner is vital to a relationship. Without it, there is no relationship.
Exactly where is the disconnect? Why do so many women feel that talking to the men in their lives—be it husbands, dads, or male coworkers—is akin to banging their heads against a brick wall? It turns out, there is considerable research that suggests men and women hear, listen to, understand, and produce speech differently because of anatomical differences in their brains. That’s something most of us, including yours truly, never knew.
Before we go any further, let me take a minute to point out that listening is defined as “Giving one’s attention to sound; making an effort to hear something,” while hearing is defined as “perceiving with the ear the sound made by someone or something.” If a person has hearing loss, it could certainly account for not being able to understand and/or process language. Treating hearing loss is vital to having a meaningful, enjoyable relationship with others. Ask any patient who came to Audiology Services for hearing instruments and he/she will attest to the fact that hearing instruments have dramatically changed life for the better.
Let’s get back to our discussion on the biological difference in hearing/listening. We’ll start with some basic biology. The left side of the two halves of the brain produces language and understands speech, while the right side controls non-auditory, spatial relationships. Women have a leg up, right from the start, because they have more nerve cells in the left half of the brain than men. And in the brain, quantity does correlate with quality. Let’s take a gymnast, for example. The part of the brain that controls balance and motor skills is larger than in non-gymnasts, and the more the gymnast practices, the larger it becomes.
Next, the thick network of fibers that connect the two sides of the brain, known as corpus callosum, is larger in women than in men. That leads to greater traffic, or connectivity, between the two halves. Both genders process single words the same way, but things change when processing a full sentence. Men use a single, specific area in the brain—above the ear—while women mobilize that same area in both sides of their brains.
Add finally, women have more dopamine in the part of the brain that controls language. Nerve cells don’t talk to each other by touching, they release chemical messengers, known as neurotransmitters, which are picked up and read by neighboring nerve cells. Because women have a higher concentration of the neurotransmitter dopamine, their cells have more messengers at their disposal. More messengers mean more information delivered more efficiently.
Does all of this mean that women are better at communication than men? I’d rather think of it this way: The increased accessibility of some of the brain’s systems may make listening to, understanding, and processing speech easier for women.
So next time you’re having a conversation with a member of the opposite sex and you’re just not getting through, first check for hearing loss. If neither person needs hearing instruments, then you can go ahead and blame Mother Nature.
Claudia Hensen's Blog Series