Top-Down Hearing

As every psychology student knows well, human perception is both a “bottom-up” and “top-down” process. Our perceptions are formed, bottom-up (from sensory input) . . . but also top-down (constructed by our experience and expectations).

Top-down perception is usually illustrated visually. Reading from left to right, our expectations cause us to perceive the middle figure differently than when reading from above.

And when first reading the phrase below, people often misperceive it:

 . . . by seeing what they expect (and failing to detect the repeated word).

The same constructive process influences what we hear.

  • Told about a young couple that has been plagued by their experience with some bad sects, people may—depending on what is on their mind—hear something quite different (bad sex).
  • The context of a sentence will determine whether you hear “the stuffy nose” or “the stuff he knows.”
  • Likewise, the weather-forecasting “meteorologist” may become, in a discussion of a muscular kidney specialist, the “meaty urologist.”

The reality of top-down hearing helps explain why theater instructors and directors, who are training their actors to project their voices, may not appreciate the hearing difficulty faced by those of us with hearing loss—and why we appreciate mic’d actors and the hearing assistive technology described here.

The problem has two sources:

  1. Most theater directors hear normally, and thus may naturally assume that others hear what they hear.
  2. The directors already know what the words are. When my TV captioning is on, I can—thanks to top-down perception—hear the spoken words clearly. My expectations, formed by the captions, drive my perception. If I turn the captions off, I no longer understand the words. Play directors who know their scripts are like those of us who watch captioned TV. But their patrons are in the no-captions mode.

Happily, here at my place called Hope (Hope College), hearing accessibility is being addressed. My theater colleagues are working to support their patrons with hearing loss—by seeking to understand their needs, by equipping their facilities with hearing assistance, and by welcoming feedback after plays.