Jim Hudspeth: How Do We Hear — And How Do We Lose Our Ability To Hear?

Oct 16, 2020
Originally published on October 16, 2020 8:20 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Sound And Silence

Over 30 million people in the U.S. have hearing loss. Neuroscientist Jim Hudspeth explains how the ear's thousands of hair cells function to amplify sound—and how they can be damaged but not repaired.

About Jim Hudspeth

Jim Hudspeth is a professor of sensory neuroscience at The Rockefeller University and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, where he studies the neural mechanisms of hearing and pursues treatments for hearing loss. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Among his numerous awards, he received the 2018 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience.

Originally from Houston, Texas, Hudspeth received his Ph.D and M.D., as well as his B.A. and M.A., from Harvard University.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

Today on the show, Sound and Silence.

DALLAS TAYLOR: So a lot of what I do in sound design is, like, try to elicit the emotion off of the visuals in order to sell it more.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE REVVING)

TAYLOR: Now, something you probably don't ever notice, which is great about sound design, is that you don't really ever think about it. Like we do, like, a lot of car commercials. And you'd think that the engine in the car commercial was just the engine they recorded right there when they shot the commercial, but it just doesn't work like that. To make an engine sound incredible...

(SOUNDBITE OF TIRES SCREECHING)

TAYLOR: ...Sometimes we have to rerecord that or borrow from a similar car that's been recorded well in order to fake it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TAYLOR: Anything that's not dialogue is completely rebuilt 98% of the time in sound design.

ZOMORODI: This is Dallas Taylor.

TAYLOR: I'm a sound designer and the host of "Twenty Thousand Hertz."

ZOMORODI: Which is a podcast all about sound. And the car you were just hearing, that was from an Acura commercial that Dallas made with the company he founded in 2009 - Defacto Sound.

TAYLOR: Really with the goal of bringing, like, cinematic, super high-end sound design to short content like advertising and trailers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TAYLOR: A lot of these things on the sound front go so much deeper than just the music score or the dialogue, but people are building entire worlds from scratch through sound effects and recording. And these sound effects could sway people emotionally. Like, you can make wind sound eerie, or you can make wind sound comforting. And I got - I became really fascinated with this whole idea of building worlds in a way that you could also help tell stories with.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: And so how did that lead you to start a podcast, which is about how sound works?

TAYLOR: It was a slow process, but it started with my career in, like, the visual world, where to tell a story, the only two human senses that we have in that world is our sense of sight and our sense of hearing. And even in that world, it's always been kind of shocking how little people would think about the sound aspect of something. But I was thinking if my entire industry, where we only have two senses to work with creatively, still undercuts and diminishes our sense of hearing and the impact that it can have, I can only imagine what the rest of the world thinks about sound.

And so I got to thinking about that more. And I started thinking, well, let's think about, like, our - the five senses we have. And in reality, we have, like, 20 senses. But for our purposes, like, what we learned in school is, like, you know, sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing. And so as humans, we're incredibly visual creatures, and that's amazing. You know, we have art galleries. We have beautiful images, photography. You know, we design our homes in a specific way to match our style. With touch, you know, we curate our clothes. We curate our furniture, our shoes, our HVAC. If we hurt, we take ibuprofen. Sense of taste - you know, all day I'm thinking about (laughter) - I'm thinking about food.

ZOMORODI: Yeah, all day.

TAYLOR: And then finally, before hearing, our sense of smell. There's a whole fragrance industry. There's soaps. There's sewage. But when it comes to hearing, we've really made that about music. And music is amazing, but music is only a small part of the sonic world. And I'd love for people to start to curate that sense and be more critical of that sense in their everyday lives, just like they do with sight, touch, taste and smell.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: I love the idea that we can more carefully curate the sounds around us better if we just start to pay more attention. But, you know, it's interesting. We were just talking to Rebecca Knill, who has a cochlear implant. And she talks about looking forward to turning it off and just being in complete silence. And I guess I'm wondering, you know, for the rest of us, do you think it's actually rare to experience pure silence?

TAYLOR: Yeah. So a lot of times when we think about silence as humans, we're just thinking of quiet. But none of us - none of us with our sense of hearing - have experienced true silence. And when I went into the anechoic chamber, my perception of what sound is, the definition of quiet, the definition of silence - all of those terms changed in my mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TAYLOR: So an anechoic chamber's design is to reduce the amount of sound to just as absolute - close to absolute zero as possible. And it's used for scientific testing to see if components vibrate or if they can catch things that maybe they couldn't hear or - in a noisier environment.

But I was fascinated with it because I really wanted to go in and just have all of the sound of life just completely sucked away to see what that would be like. And so I went down to the Georgia Tech Research Institute, and they had this big anechoic chamber where they could put me, like, on a lift in the middle of this giant room that has, like - I don't know - five layers of wall and then this giant door that's terrifying to close, and especially when you're in there alone, and then these huge, like, pyramid-foam-shaped things in every direction. And so they put me in there, and you hear noise - whatever. As soon as you shut the door, it's just like the entire world of sound just disappears. And it is more terrifying than anything.

Now, I've spent most of my professional career in recording studios, so I'm a little bit more accustomed to the quietness. But for many people, it's kind of like a shocking feeling to just take all sound away and just to realize that even in your most quiet moments, how much sound is actually there.

But in the chamber, what was really fascinating is that about 20 to 30 seconds in, I started to hear my blood pushing through my body, and I heard my digestion, and I heard a very light, like, tinnitus ring in my ears - things I've never heard before. And so that - in that moment, I could really, truly hear the Earth and its movement go away. And so I really became interested in what John Cage was talking about with "4'33"."

ZOMORODI: "4'33"," if you haven't heard of it, is a piece by composer John Cage. And Dallas tells the story in his TED Talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

TAYLOR: This piece is actually not very typical of John Cage's writing. He's more known for his innovations and avant-garde techniques. But despite his reputation, no one was prepared for what he did in 1952 when he created the most daring piece of his career. It was called "4'33"," and it was a piece that some critics even refused to call music because for the entire duration of the piece, the performer plays nothing at all. Well, to be technical, the performer is actually playing rest. But to the audience, it looks like nothing's happening.

John Cage's "4'33"" was performed for the first time in the summer of 1952 by renowned pianist David Tudor. It was at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, N.Y. This is a beautiful wooden building with huge openings to the outdoors. So David Tudor walked out onstage, sat down at the piano, then closed the piano lid. He then sat in silence, only moving to open and close the piano lid between each of the three movements. After the time was up, he got up and walked off the stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: I mean, Dallas, four minutes and 33 seconds is a long time to sit in silence if you're not in, like, church or meditating. I can only assume that people felt extremely uncomfortable.

TAYLOR: I would suspect that as well. A lot of people thought he was throwing away his career for a stunt. He got letters, family members saying, what are you doing? But what John Cage's "4'33"" does is it forces you to listen to what's happening around you in the most - in one of the most brilliant ways I could imagine, and that's being, like, in a classical music setup where someone comes out and they sit down.

And there's generally a couple reactions to it. One - oh, this is a joke. You know, why am I - why is somebody coming out, sitting down and doing nothing? But on the other side, it's a powerful experience to really feel your ears vibrating and feel the world interacting with your ears.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

TAYLOR: John Cage realized that creating an environment with no distractions wasn't about creating silence. It wasn't even about controlling noise. It was about the sounds that were already there, but you suddenly hear for the first time when you're really ready to listen. That's what's so often misunderstood about "4'33"." It sounds different everywhere you play it, and that's the point. What John Cage really wanted us to hear is the beauty of the sonic world around us.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

TAYLOR: Our ears are incredibly special because even from, like, a universal aspect, light can travel from one point in the universe all the way to the other point - another point in the universe. You know, we have light hitting our eyes - photons hitting our eyes that are billions of years old. But sound, you just travel up a few miles, and it's gone, like, forever in the way that we perceive it. I mean, sure, you could fall into Jupiter and have a moment of sonic, you know, understanding, but the gases are going to be different. So even if we interacted with, like, another living organism, they're not going to really hear like we have. They may have a completely different sense. But I think that's important to understand that, like, our ears are so in tune with our atmosphere right here on Earth, and I think that's why it's special.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TAYLOR: And I think John Cage was trying to get people to really open up that sense and curate it and understand that, like, everything can be music if you think of it that way. Everything can sound beautiful. And if we curate our world, there's so many things that we can make sound better.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: That's sound designer Dallas Taylor. You can find his full talk at ted.com. He also hosts the podcast "Twenty Thousand Hertz," which explores really fascinating stories all about sound - everything from how Netflix created its iconic sound logo to what outer space sounds like and more. "Twenty Thousand Hertz," by the way, is now part of the TED family of podcasts, so go check it out. And welcome to the family, Dallas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: All right I would love to say that we're going to leave the audience with four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence, but I feel like that might be a little bit much. How about we do ten seconds? What do you think?

TAYLOR: I think that's great.

ZOMORODI: Alright. Ok let's do it. Three, two, one.

That was good.

TAYLOR: Did you hear anything that you may have not heard otherwise?

ZOMORODI: I did actually. It's a little embarrassing, but I heard my lunch being digested. It's slightly alarming actually.

TAYLOR: I heard the hum of my computer, very distant heard the chatter of my kids far in another room. It was nice.

ZOMORODI: It's life. Thanks so much Dallas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: And thank you so much for listening to our show this week about Sound and Silence. To learn more about the people who were on it, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.

Our TED radio production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala and Matthew Cloutier, with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Farrah Safari. And special thanks this week to Defacto Sound. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.