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Review of the book "The Universal Sense: How hearing shapes the mind"

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51 - Vol. 41 No. 3 (2013) Canadian Acoustics / Acoustique canadienne
The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the
Seth S. Horowitz
Bloomsbury Publishing, USA, 2012
List price: Cd$26.50 (Hardcover)
320 pp., ISBN: 978-1-608190-90-4
Sound is our perception of airborne vibration within a
certain frequency range. Almost without exception, where
there is vibration, there is sound. We live in a world filled
with various sources of vibration and are therefore
immersed in sound. Given sound’s all-pervasive nature, we
are constantly forced to engage with it through our sense of
hearing. Yet, despite its universal engagement with the
world, we take our sense of hearing for granted and do not
understand how integral it is for our day-to-day lives. In this
book, Horowitz attempts to make us realize its importance
by focusing on the theme of “how sound and hearing have
shaped the evolution, development, and day-to-day function
of the mind.”
The Universal Sense, while being a rich information source
filled with scientific facts and phenomena pertaining to
sound and hearing, also provides us with a sense of
Horowitz’s own personal journey as a neuroscientist in
sound and hearing. Horowitz presents a wealth of scientific
phenomena using many of his own research experiences as
context, interspersing them with generous doses of humour.
It is this latter aspect that makes The Universal Sense
appealing, reflecting Horowitz’s passion and fascination for
this area. He presents various findings from past and current
research while debunking scientific myths and speculating
on futuristic themes, some of which have been explored in
science fiction.
The book is organized into 11 chapters. Chapters 1 through
8 cover various topics that fit within the theme of
“evolution, development, and day-to-day function of the
mind” while Chapters 9 through 11 appear slightly
disconnected from this theme. An implicit but somewhat
recurring plea throughout this book, particularly in Chapters
1 through 4, is for us to realize how complex our sense of
hearing is, and how important its role is in enabling us to
make sense of the rich, signal-filled, but noisy acoustic
environment we live in.
Chapter 1 explains how our sense of hearing and perception
may have developed on an evolutionary time scale. With
constant activity going on since the early, violent
beginnings of the earth, vibration sensitivity has played a
critical role in shaping evolution. Typically, evolution is
explained from the standpoint of survival of species.
However, the focus here is more on how vibrations may
have shaped evolution and led to the development of organs
for hearing in living organisms, specifically vertebrates.
Another aspect this chapter highlights is the difference
between sound and other modalities such as vision. Unlike
our sense of vision, which is passive, and involves detection
of objects using light, sound is used more actively by
animals not only as an “early warning system” but also as an
active form of communication.
Chapter 2 goes in-depth into the kinds of acoustic
environments we live in, what sound consists of, how sound
propagates in these environments across different materials,
and how our acoustic environment influences perception of
our surroundings. The chapter is important within the
context of the book, as it introduces technical terms and
concepts for the general reader, that are foundational for
understanding how we create acoustic models of the
environments we interact with. The role of constructive and
destructive interference, relationship between frequency and
wavelength and their implications, and the role of
background noise in urban environments, are some of the
topics covered here. The chapter concludes with an
excellent dissection of an auditory soundscape, aptly titled
“A Walk in the Park,” with the help of an oscillogram and a
Chapters 3 and 4 are connected chapters explaining hearing
in vertebrates that hear below and above the human range of
20 20000 Hz. Although there seems to be a general
hearing plan in place for vertebrates where hair cells detect
pressure changes and convert them into perception,
following which the hindbrain, midbrain, thalamus, and
forebrain play different roles from hearing to intentional
behaviour, there are differences between terrestrial and
aquatic vertebrates. The low frequency vertebrates covered
in Chapter 3 are fish and frogs. This chapter explains how
based on the medium of propagation, hearing related
adaptations have occurred in fish and frogs. Two interesting
topics that are covered in this chapter are (a) temporary
deafness in tadpoles during an auditory rewiring period
when they develop hearing for terrestrial in addition to
aquatic environments, and (b) brain healing in bullfrogs
after auditory nerve damage, and how bullfrog healing
studies might provide pharmacological therapies to restore
hearing ability in humans after hair cell damage. Chapter 4
talks about the evolution of a complex physical structure for
hearing in terrestrial mammals involving hair cells, and
outer and inner ears, giving them greater acoustic range. The
high frequency vertebrates covered here are mice and bats.
While both mice and bats have the same hearing range, mice
use hearing only to detect danger, whereas bats also use it
for echolocation. More details are presented pertaining to
echolocation and differences in bats with respect to how
they use echolocation (e.g. constant-frequency and
frequency-modulation). Interesting comparisons are made
between humans and bats; while mammals lose hearing with
aging, bats do not.
Chapter 5 discusses processing speed of hearing in
recognition and localization contexts, the role of hearing in
focusing attention, and how different sounds cause specific
Canadian Acoustics / Acoustique canadienne Vol. 41 No. 3 (2013) - 52
emotional responses. This chapter clearly explains the
superior processing speeds of hearing when compared with
vision. Despite light traveling incredibly fast at the speed of
300 million metres per second, vision takes hundreds to
thousands of milliseconds from input to recognition, and
allows us to detect a maximum of 15 to 25 events per
second. In contrast, despite the slower speed of sound, it
takes less than 50 milliseconds for us to identify and
localize a sound; hair cells can lock to vibrations up to 5000
times per seconds, and auditory event changes can be
detected up to 200 times per second. While informing the
reader about hearing’s superior processing speed when
compared to vision, surprisingly Horowitz does not
speculate on why this might have developed from an
evolutionary standpoint. Could this considerable difference
in processing speeds between hearing and vision have
evolved as a need to compensate for the difference in speeds
between sound and light? Other important topics covered in
this chapter include (a) Hebbian plasticity to focus attention
and detect familiar signals in noisy environments, and (b)
how sound compared to other modalities is salient for
signalling danger, triggering emotional responses that
promote survival.
Chapter 6 deals with various aspects of music. Horowitz
talks about the challenge in defining “music” based on
inconsistent definitions across different disciplines. He
suggests approaching music as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle
fitting together, consisting of different elements that may be
examined locally or in broader contexts. Relevant topics
such as consonance and dissonance and their probable
causes are covered. The chapter also touches upon topics
such as hemispheric specialization for tempo, emotion, and
pitch processing. The Mozart effect and the scientific legend
around it are covered in some level of detail. However,
several important topics pertaining to music and sound that
should have been addressed are left out. Some of these
topics include a comparison between music and speech,
important similarities and differences between the two, and
problems faced by hearing aid users in switching between
music and speech modalities.
Chapter 7 is dedicated almost entirely to sound and emotion.
Horowitz explains how sound is used to enhance the
emotional experience of a listener in various media related
environments that are either audio-only (e.g. radio) or
audiovisual (e.g. soundtracks). Some interesting questions
that are tackled include (a) what makes a jingle effective?
and (b) what effects do loudness and silence have on
arousal? The area of music and emotion is currently an
extremely hot area with researchers in music cognition and
music information retrieval interested in identifying and
predicting listeners’ emotional responses to music. This is
especially relevant today with the explosion of music
streaming and music recommendation services. A related
area involves studying relationships between audio and
music features, physiological responses in listeners, and
their emotional responses. This chapter does not cover any
of this exciting research pertaining to music and emotion.
Chapter 8 describes ways in which our states of
consciousness may be altered using sound, referred to as
“brain hacking.” Two major types of brain hacking are
listed: (a) those that induce global changes in the brain and
increase arousal, and (b) those that make specific changes to
our mental states without inducing global changes. The
chapter describes ways in which these changes might be
induced using sensory input manipulations such as noise
reduction, and increase in loudness. Information regarding
the five major brain rhythms underlying global functions is
presented along with rhythm entrainment. Other related
topics covered include Sopite syndrome, and neural
marketing involving voice frequency manipulations.
Chapter 9 describes how sound has been historically used as
a weapon, and its potential effectiveness as a present and
future weapon. It addresses what the requirements are for
achieving physical and physiological damage with different
types of sounds based on frequency range and amplitude,
and what kinds of physiological and psychological effects
might result from these sound manipulations.
Chapter 10 describes future directions we might undertake
in hearing and sound research. Some of the topics covered
include: (1) Restorative hearing, including hair cell
regeneration research and the challenges involved, (2)
acoustic ecology, including the role of sound as a measure
of the environment as well as an instigator of environmental
change, and (3) the need for our sense of hearing to adapt on
other planets, specifically Mars.
One unfortunate omission in The Universal Sense is the lack
of any links to audio files. A dedicated web page with audio
examples of some of the scientific phenomena listed in the
book would considerably improve the reading experience.
Given the plethora of scientific information on various
phenomena pertaining to sound and hearing provided in this
book, it comes across at times as disconnected. Despite
these limitations, Horowitz’s passion and enthusiasm come
through as both transparent and contagious, keeping the
reader’s interest level high throughout the book. A general
reader should find this book informative and entertaining.
Academics in research disciplines related to sound and
hearing inclusive of audiologists, acousticians, speech and
hearing scientists, and music cognition researchers should
find the book satisfying and perhaps helpful in broadening
their research perspective.
Dr. Naresh N. Vempala
SMART Lab, Department of Psychology
Ryerson University, Toronto
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