What can we do with sounds? (Part 1)

A few months ago, Andrew Wilson tweeted a hypothesis:

He had previously suggested something similar to me at EWEP15, although not in as strong a form. In this form, the hypothesis is plainly false, given the ambiguity around the word ‘specialise’ and the fact that many animals – including humans – perceive events and properties of the environment through sound, and not always through echolocation (even among bats, not all species use echolocation, or use it as the sole means to localise targets and navigate their environments). However, after replying to say as much, Andrew refined the hypothesis to something that I think is more conceptually interesting and challenging to those of us interested in auditory perception for action:

This question has been rattling around my head since the summer, and I have been meaning to write up my thoughts on here for a while. However, I’ve since realised that the question itself raises a number of different issues and ideas about auditory perception, its functions, and its comparability to other senses. These are relevant to the development of Sensory-Substitution Devices (SSDs), but I think reach into more general questions about auditory perception for action. As such, I’m going to try and tackle this over a number of posts (at some point over the coming year, I promise).

What can we do with sounds and what can’t we do?

To begin with, I thought it might be useful to group some activities, abilities and skills into those that humans specialise using sound to achieve, those that are typically guided by vision but which may be guided/influenced by sound, and those for which sound is pretty much useless compared with vision.

Things that humans do well (specialise) with sound over vision

  • Perceive and control speech (however: McGurk effect)
  • Perceive and make music (however: vision can influence perception of musical performances: 1, 2, 3)
  • Localise events and objects outside visual field, albeit less precisely than through vision

Things that humans do well (specialise) with vision, though may be able to do to a lesser ability using (naturally occurring/non-artificial) sounds

Things that humans do well (specialise) with vision, that are impossible using (naturally occurring/non-artificial) sounds

  • Read text
  • Perceive signs/symbols
  • Anything involving colour perception
  • Recognise faces

This catalogue is far from exhaustive (although I intend to add to it over time), but hopefully it will fuel thinking about what auditory perception may allow us to do and why. In subsequent posts, I intend to consider cases when human uses of sound may vary (as can be the case for people with visual-impairments, or in learning an auditory-based skill like a musical instrument), find out more about acoustic perception and action in non-human species, and explore theoretical ideas which may make sense of these different groupings from the perspective of an ecological approach to acoustic psychology. While I have thought about these questions of-and-on for some time now, this is very much a learning exercise and I do not yet know where my conclusions will end up. Good fun!

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