What Do You Do When Taste is an Unused Sense?

A walk in my neighborhood isn’t the place to test the last sense of our journey – taste.

The sidewalks in my 137-home development connect to the sidewalks of a development four times larger – a mishmash of single homes on small lots, single homes with detached garages linked by alleys, rows of townhomes, and even a few duplex townhomes sprinkled in.

And not a restaurant in sight or smell.

If I was adventuresome (and I have been), I could walk across a busy highway to a Mexican food truck that is parked in the corner of the gas station. Street tacos are the food item of choice, and a line always forms between 11:30 and 1:30 as local workers (mostly) drive in for their lunch hour.

But back on the sidewalks in my neighborhood, taste is a mostly unused sense.

Aside from sampling the lemonade of an aspiring young entrepreneur (whose aspirations lasted all of one day, apparently), there is nothing to engage the sense of taste in my neighborhood outside of my own home. I could crash a backyard party, but wouldn’t it be so much more fun to throw my own party and invite the neighborhood?

In other places around the country and around the world, it’s a much different picture. It may be restaurants old or new, food carts on the sidewalk, food truck gatherings, or festivals in the park with myriads of food choices – for many people, a walk around the block offers a delightful journey of the palate.

But like the other senses, is the sense of taste really located on the point of contact, our tongues and in our mouths?

According to The Fifth Sense, there is a common misperception that the word ‘taste’ refers to everything we experience when we eat or drink.  This isn’t actually true.

The word taste, or gustation, to give its full name, refers to what is detected by the taste cells, located on the front and back of the tongue and on the sides, back and roof of the mouth.  These receptor cells, or taste buds, bind with molecules from the food or drink being consumed and send signals to the brain.  The way our brains perceive these stimuli is what we refer to as taste, with there being five recognized basic tastes: salty, bitter, sweet, sour and umami.

According to author Michael J. Gelb, for most of us, the opportunity to taste presents itself at least three times a day. But in the rush of our lives, it is often difficult to pay attention. It is all to easy to “grab a bite on the run” and to consume an entire meal without really tasting anything. Instead of the rush to wolf down your meal and move on, pause for a few moments before eating. Reflect on the origins of the meal you are about to enjoy. Aim to be 100 percent present as you taste the first bite of your food.

To really be present in the enjoyment of tasting, Gelb recommends the following comparative tasting exercise:

Buy three kinds of honey (e.g. orange blossom, wildflower, clover), open the jars, and smell each one for thirty seconds. Describe the aromas. Then taste each one in turn; hold half a teaspoonful in our mouth and swirl it around on your tongue. Take a sip of water between tastes to clear your palate. Describe the differences in aroma and taste.

Now try the same comparison process with three kinds of olive oil, chocolate, mushrooms, apples, bottle water, smoked salmon, grapes, or vanilla ice cream.

Comparative appreciation of food, like that of listening to music, will dramatically accelerate the development of your sense of taste.

And it’s a lot of fun, too…

 

inspired by Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking

and Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing

and Michael J. Gelb’s How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci

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How to Develop Processes that Help Create Clarity

We all have days during which we feel as though we are running at full speed from the moment the alarm goes off in the morning till the time we stumble into bed late that night. These are the days of deadlines to meet, tasks to accomplish, meetings to lead, and … the list goes on and on.

Do we ever stop to think that our busyness might actually be dangerous?

Busyness can be dangerous, because it causes us to focus on pressing problems rather than on priorities. When that happens, we can miss strategic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities – like developing the leaders on our teams toward their highest potential.

THE QUICK SUMMARY – Clarity First by Karen Martin

Award-winning business performance improvement and Lean management expert Karen Martin diagnoses a ubiquitous business management and leadership problem―the lack of clarity―and outlines specific actions to dramatically improve organizational performance.

Through her global consulting projects, keynote speeches, and work with thousands of leaders, Karen has seen first-hand how a pervasive lack of clarity strangles business performance and erodes employee engagement. Ambiguity is the corporate default state, a condition so prevalent that “tolerance for ambiguity” has become a clichéd job requirement.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

In Clarity First, Karen provides methods and insights for achieving clarity to unleash potential, innovate at higher levels, and solve the problems that matter to deliver outstanding business results. Both a visionary road map and practical guide, this book will help leaders:

  • Identify and communicate the organization’s true purpose
  • Set achievable priorities
  • Deliver greater customer value through more efficient processes
  • Build organization-wide problem solving capabilities
  • Develop personal clarity to become a more direct, purposeful, and successful leader

Eliminating ambiguity is the first step for leaders and organizations to achieve strategic goals. Learn how to gain the clarity needed to make better decisions, lead more effectively, and boost organizational performance.

When it comes to leading an outstanding organization, every great leader needs Clarity First.

A SIMPLE SOLUTION

Processes, in their broadest meaning, are a series of actions, changes, or functions that are strung together to produce a result.

They combine human and physical resources in various ways to produce different outcomes. A car is produced using a process that combines parts and labor in specific sequences on an assembly line. An appendectomy is performed using a process that combines medical staff and an operating room in a sequence of actions. All organizations can be thought of as a collection of processes. A process delivers a result. That is, it delivers an output, such as a product or service.

Think of process as a railroad engine. If the engine does not run properly, it does not matter how friendly the conductor acts or how attractive the passenger cars look, the train will still not move and the passengers will not pay their fares.

Process is the engine of clarity.

Everything a business does – in fact, everything in life – occurs as a result of processes. Yet few leaders overtly advocate for process to the extent needed for clarity.

I would argue that one of the most high-impact activities for a leader is to understand and improve the processes under his control.

The degree of detail that an individual needs about the processes that make work happen throughout the organization differs depending on the level at which he or she operates.

Clarity by itself does not make outstanding processes, but no process can reach outstanding levels without absolute clarity in its design, execution, and management.

Well-managed processes are:

Documented. Not only are the process steps captured, but so are the descriptions of how the work should be performed within each step.

Current. The documentation reflects the way the work should be performed today, not how it was performed last month.

Followed. Team members have been trained in the process, and adhere to it until the process is improved.

Consistently monitored. Process performance is measured against relevant key performance indicators.

Regularly improved. Processes that consistently meet KPI targets are analyzed to identify performance gaps with the goal of setting new, more aggressive targets, and identify process changes necessary to meet them.

Karen Martin, Clarity First

A NEXT STEP

Begin your journey toward greater process clarity in one area of your organization. Work on the processes in that area to learn about and improve your training methods for designing, documenting, training, measuring, and improving them.

Use the following six steps to guide your development of processes:

  • Identify and select the problem to be worked on
  • Analyze the problem
  • Generate potential solutions
  • Select and plan the best solution
  • Implement the solution
  • Evaluate the solution

Once you have identified a solution and find that it works, continue to use it, evaluating it periodically as needed, replacing it completely when it no longer works.

Pay close attention to the results you reap from greater clarity.

Excerpt taken from SUMS Remix 96-2, released July 2018.


 

Part of a weekly series on 27gen, entitled Wednesday Weekly Reader

Regular daily reading of books is an important part of my life. It even extends to my vocation, where as Vision Room Curator for Auxano I am responsible for publishing SUMS Remix, a biweekly book “excerpt” for church leaders. Each Wednesday on 27gen I will be taking a look back at previous issues of SUMS Remix and publishing an excerpt.

>>Purchase SUMS Remix here<<

Let Your Feet Do the “Talking”

Even though this isn’t a neighborhood walk, I can’t think of a better way to let your feet do the talking than to take a walk through Disney’s Animal Kingdom and other venues at Walt Disney World…

Story is the essential organizing principle behind the design of all the Disney theme parks. Imagineers interpret and create narratives for Guest to experience in real space and time. – John Hench, Disney Legend and design genius for 60+ years.

To design an enhanced reality the visual elements of storytelling must be intensified, creating a vibrant, larger-than-life environment. The enhanced simple reality that Guests experience in Disney parks and resorts is created in part by heightened key sensory details, such as the sun-baked mud pathways and foot tracks of the African section of the Animal Kingdom.

A crack in a walking path is really the beginning of a story. The minute details that produce the visual experience are really the true art of the Disney-themed show. Remember for Disney, everything the Guest sees, hears, smells, or comes into contact with is part of the show. The details corroborate every story point, immersing Guests in the story idea.

Most of the first generation of Disney’s Imagineers – like John Hench – began their career in film and understood the importance of details in visual storytelling, but with a crucial difference: theme park design is a three-dimensional storytelling art that places Guests in the story environment.

WDW-AK-Feb16Path2

Bicycle tracks in pavement? It’s all a part of the story you’ve been invited into!

 

WDW-AK-Feb16-Path1

The foundation of earlier buildings jutting into this sidewalk begs to know the rest of the story.

So what does it take to create visual storytelling on with footpaths, sidewalks, and walking trails? For that, let’s go directly to the source: Disney’s Imagineers.

Behind the Scenes – Imagineering 101

Themed paving is an important aspect of the all-encompassing realism to which Animal Kingdom strives. Most of the early paving designs were a fairly straightforward mix of stamped finishes, but the team realized that, for roughly the same cost, they could embed stories into the Park’s footprint. A series of samples was developed and refined until each one had a place in the Park layout.

These surfaces have to perform all of the functional requirements of normal pavement. They have to hold up to the weather, to constant foot traffic, to parades, to after-hours vehicular traffic, and any unexpected abuse. The team had to develop ways to work in the expansion joints and cold joints that would allow the concrete to expand and contract with changes in temperature.

As each texture was being developed, designers studied variations in concrete color, stains, acid washes, and base textures. These textures were captured in silicone stamps so that they could be replicated over large areas. Elements that help to complete the look for a given place were then rolled across the surface, be they footprints, animal tracks, leaf patterns, or bicycle and truck tires.

WDW-AK-Feb16Path5

Look in the space above this impression, and you will see a real tree with the identical branch patterns.

Finally, all of these ingredients are captured in a “recipe” that is documented so that the paving can be replicated when necessary for purposes of maintenance or expansion.

Source: The Imagineering Field Guide to Disney’s Animal Kingdom

What’s the story under your feet – and those of your Guests?

Most organizations are not going to even begin to approach the detailed design of Disney’s Imagineers in creating travel paths, flooring, walkways, etc. But the principle of what the Imagineers do is sound, and can be applied in any organization.

Transform your spaces – even those under your feet – into story places. Every element must work together to create an identity that supports the story of that place – structures, entrances and exits, walkways, and landscaping. Every element in its form and color must engage the Guests’ imagination and appeal to their emotions.

Like “peanuts” embedded in the pavement around the Casey Jr. train that carried Dumbo!

Your story begins under your Guest’s feet.

I only wish my sidewalks were this much fun!

 

inspired by Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking

and Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing

Remembering My Father, Celebrating Book Lover’s Day

Friday, August 9 would have been my father’s 92nd birthday.

It’s also Book Lover’s Day.

Those two seemingly incongruent circumstances actually have a powerful connection for me.

After suffering a major stroke on February 10, 2012, my father passed away on February 25. By the time I was able to get back to Tennessee to see him, he had lost motor functions and speech capacity. Over the few days I was there, the slow but steady decline continued.

I had last seen him during the Christmas holidays. While there, I spent some time alone at home with him. After suffering a series of strokes over the past several years, he could no longer read – but the legacy of his reading lines the bookshelves all over my boyhood home. In the quiet hours when everyone was asleep, I scanned the shelves and remembered hearing him talk about this book or that one. I pulled a few off the shelf, and opening them, was instantly transported back in time to a conversation about the subject, or to memories of the event itself.

I’ve been a reader of books since, well, before I can remember. My father was an avid reader, and he passed that passion along to me at an early age. Even though he worked 6 days a week, 12 hours a day, he often spent several hours reading at night. He insisted my mother take my brother and me to the library in the next town and check out books – every two weeks. I would get the maximum number of books, take them home, and read them – usually in the first day or two. Then it would be an impatient wait till the next library trip.

Reading is a passion I treasure, and one that I am thankful my father instilled in me.

Tomorrow it will be Book Lover’s Day – not an official holiday but one I eagerly celebrate. Book reading is a great hobby. It’s an important one, too. Employers look for it on resumes. Reading is educational, informative, and relaxing. It makes us both smarter and happier people.

Book Lovers Day is a great day to celebrate. Just grab an interesting book, find a quiet, cozy place, and crack open the cover. Celebrating Book Lovers Day in August is pleasurable on the deck, under a shady tree, poolside, or in a cozy hammock. If you fall asleep while reading, that’s okay. It’s all part of the relaxing benefits of being a book lover.

I’m also celebrating this Book Lover’s Day as a part of my vocation – Vision Room Curator and Digital Engagement Leader at Auxano. My role requires me to read – a lot – and then write book excerpts, Tweets, Facebook posts, and blogs about what I’m reading. During a recent consultation with a client, I was able to pull a half-dozen book titles off the top of my head when asked for recommendations on books about Guest Experiences. That’s part of the benefit of reading!

I love my job!

Here’s an example:

 

I call these my SUMS Remix Book Towers. Along with the current year (not pictured), these towers contain 371 books, representing 124 issues, one published every two weeks over the last five years. The format of SUMS Remix is simple: one problem statement faced by church leaders, 3 brief excepts from books that provide a solution to the problem, and 3 ready-to-use applications for leaders to try out immediately. (Click on the link above to find out more and purchase an annual subscription.)

And here’s a big announcement: we’re getting ready to release back issues of SUMS Remix! The first four years of SUMS Remix have been packaged into six digital “bookshelves,” each containing between 14-23 issues. The six bookshelf categories are: Vision; Leadership; Execution; Discipleship; Communication; and Resourcing. They will be available for purchase and instant download for $24 per bookshelf, or $18 per bookshelf if you purchase 2 or more. I’ll be announcing the launch of the prior year issues here very soon.

With a two-week production cycle, and a two-week preparation phase, at any given time I’m working on 4 SUMS Remix issues, which means there are 12 books on my front burner.

And that’s just for SUMS Remix reading…

Then there’s current reading for Auxano social media (Tweets, Instagram, and Facebook posts), preparation for Guest Experience training and consultations, other writing projects, and believe it or not, reading just for the pleasure of reading.

So, on Book Lover’s Day, and in memory of my father, I’m trying to emulate Thomas Edison, who believed that voracious reading was the key to self-improvement. He read books on a remarkable range of subjects to address his endless queries. As Edison noted, “I didn’t read a few books, I read the library.”


If you want to know more about my dad, here is the eulogy I gave at his funeral. After the funeral, while my sons and I were moving some things around his gas station, I discovered one reason I am so passionate about guest services. And read this post to find out why readers are leaders.

How are you celebrating Book Lover’s Day?

Hospitality is a Catalyst for the Gospel

It’s fairly easy for volunteers on your team to state what they do. It’s also pretty easy for most volunteers to talk about how they do what they do. However, few volunteers can actually articulate WHY they do what they do.

The reason? Stating WHY goes to values, and values are often talked about but more often misunderstood.

A church without values is like a river without banks – just a large puddle.

Values are the shared convictions that guide the actions and reveal the strength of the church. They are the values that represent the conscious and collective soul of your church because they express your most deeply held ideals. They define your ministry’s ethos.

Values are filters for decision-making and springboards for daily action. They are the constant reminder of what is most important to your church.

As with any organization, your church has a set of shared values underneath the surface of everyday activity. The problem is that they stay weak because they are unidentified and unharnessed in guiding the future.

The role of the leader is to identify the most important values and pull them above the waterline of people’s perception. Once they are in clear view, the leader can nurture their development, enabling the church to do more of what it does best.

What is true of your church as a whole is also true of individual ministries in your church.

THE QUICK SUMMARYPeople Are The Mission by Danny Franks

Danny Franks, Guest Services Pastor at Summit Church, shows church leaders how to take a more balanced approach to the design and implementation of a guest services ministry. He introduces a new model for welcoming people to your church that is both guest-friendly and gospel-centric.

Your church’s preaching and worship styles may draw a crowd, but to keep a crowd, people must sense that you love them, that you expected them, and that you can’t wait for them to return. Finally, here is a book that tells you how to make that happen.

A SIMPLE SOLUTION

It’s easy to give a volunteer a job description and then point them in the right direction. Anyone can assign a task. And for the most part, just about anyone can execute most tasks.

However, a good leader does not just assign a task. A good leader starts with creating a compelling vision for the task. A great leader continually casts this compelling vision so there is no doubt why a ministry exists.

The main thing of the church – our why for existing – should be defined by God’s Word. And the primary message of Scripture is Jesus and that Jesus changes everything.

The good news that Jesus brought – real forgiveness of our sins and reconciliation with our Creator – does indeed change everything. It changes the way we live, work, and play. And it changes the way we structure our worship services and our annual budgets. When the gospel is the main thing, it will change everything. It will renovate our curriculum and reengineer our business meetings.

So rather than adapt to a formula, cut and paste a few principles, or tackle a list of action steps, take just one action step: imitate Jesus. Let’s remember that the one who sought us is still seeking others. Let’s keep in mind that the one who sought us is still seeking others. Let’s keep in mind that the Great Commission doesn’t just challenge us to make disciples at the ends of the earth but in our backyards. Let’s be salt and light, love people well, and set our weekend services up for great hospitality.

We need to keep reminding people that though we pour coffee, we are not there primarily to pour coffee. We direct traffic, but we are not traffic cops. We want a smooth, error-free service, but we don’t show up so that the weekend service will run more smoothly.

We do all that we do as a living, breathing, example of the grace of God, our small acts of service serving as a witness to God’s goodness in the life of an unbeliever.

Danny Franks, People Are The Mission

A NEXT STEP

People Are The Mission author Danny Franks writes, “We need to remind our teams that hospitality is a catalyst.” He continues, “That’s why it’s important to push the vision for serving guests at every opportunity.”

One of the best ways to communicate vision is through stories. As a leader, you should build up and maintain a “story repository” of at least ten great stories that relate volunteer heroics, ministry wins, and life change in action.

If you don’t currently do this, here’s a way to start. At your next team meeting, conduct this exercise:

You are in charge of a space expedition. Your purpose is to establish a colony on a distant planet. This colony must replicate the very best characteristics of your church’s hospitality ministry – but your spaceship only has ten seats. Uncover the heart of your hospitality ministry by selecting volunteers who will fill these seats.

Discuss among your team individuals to go on the journey. Who represents the “best of” your hospitality ministry? Use these questions to help you with your decision:

  1. What values do they live by, regardless of recognition?
  2. How do they demonstrate the values?
  3. Will their values be valid 100 years from now?
  4. What’s their “story” of serving on the hospitality ministry?

The resulting ten people and their “stories” should be the start of helping people connect the dots between the way the people served and how Jesus saved. They can demonstrate how the work they did helped pave the road toward a gospel awakening that a guest experienced.

Excerpt taken from SUMS Remix #99-1, released August 2018.


 

Part of a weekly series on 27gen, entitled Wednesday Weekly Reader

Regular daily reading of books is an important part of my life. It even extends to my vocation, where as Vision Room Curator for Auxano I am responsible for publishing SUMS Remix, a biweekly book “excerpt” for church leaders. Each Wednesday on 27gen I will be taking a look back at previous issues of SUMS Remix and publishing an excerpt.

>>Purchase SUMS Remix here<<

Your Nose Knows

I have discovered that the sense of smell, like the other senses, is engaged differently by the calendar.

For instance, if I am walking in the spring, my first scent will most likely be growing things: grass, trees, and flowers the most likely sources. But walk out the same door in the fall, and the scent will be decaying and dead things, particularly the leaves of the trees: having served their growing season’s purpose, they slowly die, then drift down to the ground to be blown away or collected and disposed of.

This same concept applies to man-made objects, and in my neighborhood, happens every Thursday. That’s the day when our roll-away waste containers are lined up like soldiers, one, two, or three abreast, standing at attention (some at-ease) at the end of the driveway. Throughout the day, the garbage trucks come by to grab, dump, and replace the empty containers back in the driveway. So on Thursdays, any walk down the sidewalk of the neighborhood is inviting your nose to be a collector of the last week’s life, now trash. Even through the plastic trash bags and mostly-closed lids, the odors can be pervasive. Decaying food is often the main component, but for those families with little ones, the odor of food comes in a different scent! By the design of the collection machinery, the lids of empty containers remain open – to air out, but also to announce to any passerby the strongest odors of what was formerly occupying the container.

And it is at this moment that your nose knows – not only what was in the container a short while ago, but what that scent brings to your memories.

According to science, the sense of smell is closely linked with memory, probably more so than any of our other senses.  Those with full olfactory function may be able to think of smells that evoke particular memories; the scent of an orchard in blossom conjuring up recollections of a childhood picnic, for example.  This can often happen spontaneously, with a smell acting as a trigger in recalling a long-forgotten event or experience.

Given the time of year, try this the next time you are walking through Target or an office supply store: Pick up a box of crayons, open the top, and take a deep breath. Most likely, you will be transported from the store aisle to elementary school, with memories of your new box of crayons comforting the uncertainty of a new classroom full of friends yet to be made.

So how does your nose know?

According to the National Institutes of Health, your sense of smell – like your sense of taste – is part of your chemosensory system, or the chemical senses.

Your ability to smell comes from specialized sensory cells, called olfactory sensory neurons, which are found in a small patch of tissue high inside the nose. These cells connect directly to the brain. Each olfactory neuron has one odor receptor. Microscopic molecules released by substances around us—whether it’s coffee brewing or pine trees in a forest—stimulate these receptors. Once the neurons detect the molecules, they send messages to your brain, which identifies the smell. There are more smells in the environment than there are receptors, and any given molecule may stimulate a combination of receptors, creating a unique representation in the brain. These representations are registered by the brain as a particular smell.

Smells reach the olfactory sensory neurons through two pathways. The first pathway is through your nostrils. The second pathway is through a channel that connects the roof of the throat to the nose. Chewing food releases aromas that access the olfactory sensory neurons through the second channel. If the channel is blocked, such as when your nose is stuffed up by a cold or flu, odors can’t reach the sensory cells that are stimulated by smells. As a result, you lose much of your ability to enjoy a food’s flavor. In this way, your senses of smell and taste work closely together.

Without the olfactory sensory neurons, familiar flavors such as chocolate or oranges would be hard to distinguish. Without smell, foods tend to taste bland and have little or no flavor. Some people who go to the doctor because they think they’ve lost their sense of taste are surprised to learn that they’ve lost their sense of smell instead.

Your sense of smell is also influenced by something called the common chemical sense. This sense involves thousands of nerve endings, especially on the moist surfaces of the eyes, nose, mouth, and throat. These nerve endings help you sense irritating substances—such as the tear-inducing power of an onion—or the refreshing coolness of menthol.

And so all day, every day, you are confronted with a smorgasbord of smells. Your five million olfactory cells can sniff out one molecule of odor-causing substance in one part per trillion of air. And you take about 23,000 breaths per day processing about 440 cubic feet of scent-laden air.

But most people have a very limited vocabulary for describing aromatic experience: “It stinks” or “That smells good” are the most common references. If you want to pay attention with your nose, aim to increase your discrimination of and appreciation for smell by expanding your olfactory vocabulary.

Make “Smells” a Theme for a Day

Record what you smell and how it affects you through the course of a day. Seek out unusual or intense aromas. Linger in the cheese department of your favorite gourmet store. Drive to the country and walk through a barnyard. Inhale the aroma of all the herbs and spices in your kitchen. How does smell affect your moods? Your memory? Aim to find and record specific examples of aromas affecting your emotion or recall.

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michael J. Gelb

By prompting yourself to focus explicitly on scents and odors, you will most likely find yourself remembering the past while also developing a new appreciation for what your nose knows.

 

inspired by Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking

and Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing

You May Hear, But Are You Listening?

When I step out my door for a walk, the next sense I am aware of is sound.

The typical North Carolina summer mornings between 6 and 10 a.m. are anything but quiet – at least where I live. As soon as the door closes, the sounds envelop me. Depending on the time of day, the first think I will hear are the insects: crickets, katydids, and cicadas, mostly. Next come the birds: robins, jays, sparrows, wrens, and more, all greeting the day with their calls. Along with the creatures, I usually hear the sound of wind moving through the trees surrounding our house and lining the sidewalks of my journey.

Then manmade sounds crash in on nature: depending on the direction of the wind and the time of day, I will hear cars zooming up and down I-77, about a mile away. If it’s rush hour, oddly enough, it’s quieter – the cars aren’t traveling at speed limits, but creeping along much slower, and therefore much quieter.

Again, depending on the time of day and the wind pattern, I will hear the sounds of aircraft on approach to Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Though I’m over 16 miles away, there is a landing approach pattern that circles above and to the west of my house, and during busy times I will hear one plane after another slowly cruising north and then turning west over Lake Norman before turning south to make their final approach. Having flown enough, and curious about planes enough, I can often identify the type of plane by its engine sound.

Continuing the walk brings a mixture of these sounds: dogs barking, AC units humming, lawn crews at work, construction machinery working on the foundation of a new house, road crews repaving, splashing water at the neighborhood pool, mountain bikes crashing through the trails behind the house, the infrequent train whistle of freight moving on the rail spur a mile away, and the various human sounds of families beginning their day, from the slamming of doors to music playing to laughter to arguments to silence.

We are able to hear a great deal in our daily lives, but do we know how to listen?

According to the University of Maryland Medical, here is how the ear works normally:

  1. Sound is transmitted as sound waves from the environment. The sound waves are gathered by the outer ear and sent down the ear canal to the eardrum.
  2. The sound waves cause the eardrum to vibrate, which sets the three tiny bones in the middle ear into motion.
  3. The motion of the bones causes the fluid in the inner ear or cochlea to move.
  4. The movement of the inner ear fluid causes the hair cells in the cochlea to bend. The hair cells change the movement into electrical pulses.
  5. These electrical impulses are transmitted to the hearing (auditory) nerve and up to the brain, where they are interpreted as sound.

Hearing is a physical process involving sound waves and the body. We know about it because it is easy to study; listening, the interpretation of those sound waves, is harder to quantify.

To hear is the physical means that enables perception. To listen is to give attention to what is perceived, both acoustically and psychologically.

Composer Pauline Oliveros

If you want to tune up your auditory sense, try the following exercises from Michael J. Gelb’s How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci:

Layered Listening

Once or twice each day, pause for a few moments, enjoy a few deep exhalations, and listen to the sounds around you. First, you’ll hear the loudest, most obvious sounds: the air conditioner, traffic outside, the background noises of people and machinery. Then as that “layer” becomes clarified, begin to notice the next layer down – sounds of your breathing, a gentle breeze, footsteps in the hall, the shifting of your sleeve when you move your hand. Keep moving your awareness deeper into the next layer and then the next until you hear the soft, rhythmic beating of your heart.

Listen for Silence

Practice listening in the spaces between sounds – the pauses in a friend’s conversation or your favorite music, and the silences between the notes in the song of a bluebird. Make silence a theme for a day and record your observations in your notebook. Do you have access to a place of complete silence, away from the humming of machines? Try to find such a place. How does it feel to be in a place of complete quiet?

Taking the above exercises one step further, composer Pauline Oliveros encourages people to “listen to all possible sounds.” When one sound grabs your attention, dwell on it. Does it end? Think about what it reminds you of. Consider sounds from your past, from dreams, from nature, from music.

To walk and listen. To some extent, this would be an exercise in playing close enough attention to name what we hear. Simply giving a name to a sound can change the experience of it: when we see the thing that clatters or moans or sighs, we hear it differently. Naming, though, is not the exclusive reason for listening. Indeed, at times naming a sound aborts the experience of hearing altogether, shutting us off from continued listening and exploring the nature of a sound.

Alexander Horowitz, On Looking

 

inspired by Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking

and Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing