Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Oliver Sacks / Mishearings

Oliver Sacks
Poster by T.A.


The New York Times
June 5, 2015

A FEW weeks ago, when I heard my assistant Kate say to me, “I am going to choir practice,” I was surprised. I have never, in the 30 years we have worked together, heard her express the slightest interest in singing. But I thought, who knows? Perhaps this is a part of herself she has kept quiet about; perhaps it is a new interest; perhaps her son is in a choir; perhaps .…

I was fertile with hypotheses, but I did not consider for a moment that I had misheard her. It was only on her return that I found she had been to thechiropractor.

A few days later, Kate jokingly said, “I’m off to choir practice.” Again I was baffled: Firecrackers? Why was she talking about firecrackers?

As my deafness increases, I am more and more prone to mishearing what people say, though this is quite unpredictable; it may happen 20 times, or not at all, in the course of a day. I carefully record these in a little red notebook labeled “PARACUSES” — aberrations in hearing, especially mishearings. I enter what I hear (in red) on one page, what was actually said (in green) on the opposite page, and (in purple) people’s reactions to my mishearings, and the often far-fetched hypotheses I may entertain in an attempt to make sense of what is often essentially nonsensical.

After the publication of Freud’s “Psychopathology of Everyday Life” in 1901, such mishearings, along with a range of misreadings, misspeakings, misdoings and slips of the tongue were seen as “Freudian,” an expression of deeply repressed feelings and conflicts.

But although there are occasional, unprintable mishearings that make me blush, a vast majority do not admit any simple Freudian interpretation. In almost all of my mishearings, however, there is a similar overall sound, a similar acoustic gestalt, linking what is said and what is heard. Syntax is always preserved, but this does not help; mishearings are likely to capsize meaning, to overwhelm it with phonologically similar but meaningless or absurd sound forms, even though the general form of a sentence is preserved.

Lack of clear enunciation, unusual accents or poor electronic transmission can all serve to mislead one’s own perceptions. Most mishearings substitute one real word for another, however absurd or out of context, but sometimes the brain comes up with a neologism. When a friend told me on the phone that her child was sick, I misheard “tonsillitis” as “pontillitis,” and I was puzzled. Was this some unusual clinical syndrome, an inflammation I had never heard of? It did not occur to me that I had invented a nonexistent word — indeed, a nonexistent condition.

Every mishearing is a novel concoction. The hundredth mishearing is as fresh and as surprising as the first. I am often strangely slow to realize that I have misheard, and I may entertain the most far-fetched ideas to explain my mishearings, when it would seem that I should spot them straight away. If a mishearing seems plausible, one may not think that one has misheard; it is only if the mishearing is sufficiently implausible, or entirely out of context, that one thinks, “This can’t be right,” and (perhaps with some embarrassment) asks the speaker to repeat himself, as I often do, or even to spell out the misheard words or phrases.

When Kate spoke of going to choir practice, I accepted this: She could have been going to choir practice. But when a friend spoke one day about “a big-time cuttlefish diagnosed with A.L.S.,” I felt I must be mishearing. Cephalopods have elaborate nervous systems, it is true, and perhaps, I thought for a split second, a cuttlefish could have A.L.S. But the idea of a “big-time” cuttlefish was ridiculous. (It turned out to be “a big-time publicist diagnosed with A.L.S.”)

While mishearings may seem to be of little special interest, they can cast an unexpected light on the nature of perception — the perception of speech, in particular. What is extraordinary, first, is that they present themselves as clearly articulated words or phrases, not as jumbles of sound. Onemishears rather than just fails to hear.

Mishearings are not hallucinations, but like hallucinations they utilize the usual pathways of perception and pose as reality — it does not occur to one to question them. But since all of our perceptions must be constructed by the brain, from often meager and ambiguous sensory data, the possibility of error or deception is always present. Indeed, it is a marvel that our perceptions are so often correct, given the rapidity, the near instantaneity, with which they are constructed.

One’s surroundings, one’s wishes and expectations, conscious and unconscious, can certainly be co-determinants in mishearing, but the real mischief lies at lower levels, in those parts of the brain involved in phonological analysis and decoding. Doing what they can with distorted or deficient signals from our ears, these parts of the brain manage to construct real words or phrases, even if they are absurd.

While I often mishear words, I seldom mishear music: notes, melodies, harmonies, phrasings remain as clear and rich as they have been all my life (though I often mishear lyrics). There is clearly something about the way the brain processes music that makes it robust, even in the face of imperfect hearing; and, conversely, something about the nature of spoken language that makes it much more vulnerable to deficiencies or distortions.

Playing or even hearing music (at least traditional scored music) involves not just the analysis of tone and rhythm — it also engages one’s procedural memory and emotional centers in the brain; musical pieces are held in memory and allow anticipation.

But speech must be decoded by other systems in the brain as well, including systems for semantic memory and syntax. Speech is open, inventive, improvised; it is rich in ambiguity and meaning. There is a huge freedom in this, making spoken language almost infinitely flexible and adaptable — but also vulnerable to mishearing.

Was Freud entirely wrong then about slips and mishearings? Of course not. He advanced fundamental considerations about wishes, fears, motives and conflicts not present in consciousness, or thrust out of consciousness, which could color slips of the tongue, mishearings or misreadings. But he was, perhaps, too insistent that misperceptions are wholly a result of unconscious motivation.

Collecting mishearings over the past few years without any explicit selection or bias, I am forced to think that Freud underestimated the power of neural mechanisms, combined with the open and unpredictable nature of language, to sabotage meaning, to generate mishearings that are irrelevant both in terms of context and of subconscious motivation.

And yet there is often a sort of style or wit — a “dash ”— in these instantaneous inventions; they reflect, to some extent, one’s own interests and experiences, and I rather enjoy them. Only in the realm of mishearing — at least, my mishearings — can a biography of cancer become a biography of Cantor (one of my favorite mathematicians), tarot cards turn into pteropods, a grocery bag into a poetry bag, all-or-noneness into oral numbness, a porch into a Porsche, and a mere mention of Christmas Eve a command to “Kiss my feet!”

Oliver Sacks
A professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, and the author, most recently, of the memoir “On the Move.”

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