Letter from the Dean

Listening is fundamental

The mystery of sound and how it affects us

A heartbeat. This most fundamental of sounds carries great meaning and deep-seated emotion. From it comes the most basic sign of life. Through its rhythm, sound assumes a foundational role in our development.

Glenn Matsumura photograph

A baby’s cry brings her father’s soothing touch.

A 30-something turns up the radio, transported back to a high school dance on the notes of a song.

A grandmother smiles wide at the sound of an old friend’s voice on the phone.

Listening, whether literally with our ears or metaphorically with understanding, is at the heart of every relationship. It is also the lifeblood of any strong physician-patient rapport.

Why? Because while you can share a passing glance and experience a brief touch, listening requires us to slow down, maybe even to stop. To do it well, what we call active listening, requires giving someone our full attention.

Listening is fundamental to so much of who we are, yet exactly how we process sound and how it affects us emotionally and physically remain unknown.

This fascinating issue of Stanford Medicine dives into that mystery.

I marveled at its four examples of how sound is being used in innovative research: tuning in to brain waves to “hear” neurological health, tracking mosquitoes through their whines, harnessing the power of ultrasound and using acoustic waves to study heart cells themselves.

One article demonstrates how artificial intelligence and machine learning can help us listen our way to better, more efficient health care and provides a sampler of the intelligent listening technologies emerging from Stanford, including a mental health chatbot and a social media data miner for drug side effects.

The magazine also explores the deep connection between empathy, listening and the doctor-patient relationship, a subject promoted by Stanford’s Presence program, which recognizes that our instinctual need to care for those who suffer is one of the most poignant of human experiences.

Another story warns of a growing threat. For all its importance, we neglect our hearing, a fact I know well from my years treating patients. But because of the research of my colleagues in neurotology, we might soon be able to get ahead of this growing health crisis — and maybe even reverse hearing loss.

Finally, the incomparable soprano Renée Fleming discusses an initiative called Sound Health Music and the Mind that explores how music can be harnessed to improve health and well-being. She describes her experience singing while undergoing an fMRI scan, something I discussed with her when she was at Stanford Medicine recently to talk about this collaboration between the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the National Institutes of Health.

Listening is intrinsic to human relationships. Done well, it’s a powerful talent, and when freely given, a momentous gift.

Additional Reading

Hearing things

Solving the mystery of why some people can hear their eyeballs move

Listen up

The stethoscope at 200