Listening to remember: Active sensory listening.
Maree Sugai 菅井マリー准教授
Director (Health Care) Global Listening Centre
Associate Professor Intercultural Communication . Dept of Social Sciences
Tohoku University of Community Service and Science .Japan
Have you ever sat through a lecture, watched a “how to” You Tube video or been given location directions only to find you can’t really remember very much, by the end? You are not alone. One chance is not usually enough to take away all the details that are needed even for the tiniest percentage of gifted eidetic active listeners.
How can we listen more efficiently; ultimately saving hours of ‘repeat, check, replay’ time
every day? Is it possible to learn to listen better for what we need to know?
Is it possible to move and store that information a little faster from our short-term memory
(STM) of audio input into the long-term memory (LTM)?
Could we use our bottom up listening skills (usually referred to as hearing) that rely simply on a functioning cochlea (the auditory part of the inner ear) and top down listening processing skills or working memory (WM); the understanding of what we hear to foster a more actively effective neurotransmission? This is the firing or igniting activity of over 100 billion neurons bumping and colliding and sparking a complex electrical synaptic processing called synaptic connections.
Storage and retrieval of memories rely on a healthy performance of neurotransmitters such as
acetylcholine, glutamate, aspartate, noradrenaline, histamine. These transmitters facilitate a
stronger encoding in a healthy brain- one that challenges itself to remember more which in turn produces more of these vital neurotransmitters and amino acids.
The answer to if we can improve our listening and remembering skills is yes, and the benefits are not only time and cost efficient but provide subsidiary benefits; active listeners tend to be more popular and people savvy, enabling a shrewder and less easily deceived path to personal goals.
The brain’s neural memory system is complex and it plays an important part in listening skills
but while much can be explained scientifically, lifestyle habits also enhance faster and deeper
listening ability. It’s no surprise we remember more after a good night’s sleep for example. A
stronger ability to hear and store facts- declarative memories, those facts we need to take away to make connected sense of what we heard, is toned through slow wave sleep.
Recent neural network research recognizes that the deep sleep phase of sleep restores the ability to remember.
Sleep and taking care of our health also enables stronger tolerance of distractions and strengthens signal processing; the elimination of unwanted noise and volume control of our listening focus.
This is a key theme in meditation and equally central to an active listening skill set.
Connected is a key word . Our memories are biased. We choose to remember the familiar and
link our resident knowledge to new information that fits with what we already know; called
pattern recognition . Similarly, the more connections we can make with what we already know, the stronger the declarative memory becomes. Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily mean we get better at memorizing as we age and collect a larger memory database since counteractively, as we get older we are also prone to degeneration of grey and white matter. These are the twotypes of tissues composed of neuronal cells and unmyelinated axons needed to transfer and process information to the brain via signals generated in the sensory organs.
Considering the importance of sensory perception in memory retention, senses are probably the most significantly underutilized mnemonics of becoming a better active listener. In ethnographic research, a qualitative or ethnographic researcher strives to not only listen but also utilize the senses of sight, touch, taste and smell to aid memory where audio recording is an insufficient tool to capture the moment. By tuning in to some of these senses while simultaneously listening, we can multiply the number of necessary neural connections needed to pass chunks of information securely into our neurocircuitry by gaining extra chances at patterns of recognition.
For example, a neighbor’s brief conversation might be better remembered, if while we listen, we also notice the visual setting, the weather, the nearby sounds and smells, giving the speech a richer context. This sensory perception is the very first brief transitional stage of every memory stored by our brain.
So, how does this play out realistically ?
Imagine you are listening to and watching an inspiring TED talk on a new topic of interest. All the densely packed knowledge and experience that the speaker has typically put so much work into making their performance powerful, is fascinating to you, but when you leave the audience, you remember only a few key points, catchphrases and the title. This is passive listening.
You heard and you were intellectually present but it isn’t an active listening that will be fully
remembered unless you were able to make enough connections along the way in your brain with what you heard and what you already know. Unless, you can retain that information by building it onto stored knowledge, jenga-style, giving the new knowledge a kickstart in your
neurocircuitry. Without association, the memory will quickly fade or not be taken in. We pin
memory on memory as we associate and make connections that match our expectations.
The talk will need to be revisited and re-listened to repeatedly until enough connections can be discovered to trap and hold the new knowledge in the long-term memory (LTM).
How can I make those connections when the topic is new or unknown to me?
We can notice and pay attention better, first by clearing our mind of distractions and thought
clutter while listening, and our brains will automatically be sent the message that something
being heard is important to remember. We need to listen most attentively when the subject matter is either boring or new to us. In both scenarios, the brain needs to be in high filter functioning mode also referred to as DMN or default mode network. This occurs when we selectively correlate connections of what we already know and incoming new knowledge that expands on that existing knowledge.
This is where areas of the brain, the hippocampus and the frontal cortex are especially active.
Cells in these areas analyze what is heard from the inner ear, and is seen by the eye in tandem, editing received input as we listen and noticing connections with other existing memory cells, saving information that has some relationship to other neurons in the labyrinth. This ability to decipher patterns, prioritize and retain important information is strengthened by the neurotransmitter molecules dopamine and acetylcholine released from neighboring brain cells. Optogenetics have clarified this process using light to monitor and control cells in living tissue.
Optogenetics have shown how the brain’s neural activity depends on these neurons to select and
retain memories and activate linking dormant or buried memory traces in adjacent or passing
memory neurons. The process of connections and associations we make is often called encoding
. Memory Encoding – How Human Memory Works | HowStuffWorks
A single brain cell (from 0.004 mm to 0.1mm in size) has the capacity to hold a complete
detailed memory and each cell links to the others to connect the memories and information in
complex synaptic patterns.
Some brains associate, encode and connect faster and better than others by default but with
some attention to strategy of listening via deliberate focus on several sensory stimulators, a
stronger semantic encoding is enabled. A healthy lifestyle, as well as practice in this active
participation, sense-aware listening, can assist our brains towards a larger memory allocation.
Memories are consolidated and recalled most easily when there has been repeated chronological
or hierarchical connections made and several senses have been simultaneously stimulated.
● Be a focused listener, undistracted by visuals while actively listening, but aware of the
visual context as background to pin the memory. File the visual first, then put it aside to
● Pay more attention to what is being said when the content is new or boring
● Tell yourself before listening that every bit of information connects and notice those
● Connect the smell, sound, the visual, the feeling and any emotion raised to what you
already know or have experienced. Make a positive personally meaningful association
with what you hear and sense to accelerate encoding and consolidation.
● Sleep and a healthy lifestyle can help you tolerate distractions to listen actively and more