Paying attention to the message beneath the words

By Dave Andrusko

Why do some people readily hear our message of love and compassion for mother and unborn child while to others it is not so much rejected as it comes across  as unimportant or “background noise”? Here’s a thought, based on a piece written by Seth S. Horowitz, published over the weekend in the New York Times.

In “The Science and Art of Listening,” Horowitz, an auditory neuroscientist at Brown University, employs a three-tiered explanatory system to explain the complexity of hearing and to distinguish hearing from listening and the role of attention. He observes that because there is no place that is totally silent

“your auditory system has evolved a complex and automatic ‘volume control,’ fine-tuned by development and experience, to keep most sounds off your cognitive radar unless they might be of use as a signal that something dangerous or wonderful is somewhere within the kilometer or so that your ears can detect.”

Which is where attention kicks in, by no means a “monolithic brain process.” These different types of attention employ different parts of the brain. The simplest is the startle– “observed in every studied vertebrate,” he writes. The most complex –where you “actually pay attention to something you’re listening to”–involves more sophisticated parts of the brain.

So what allows you to “actively focus on what you’re hearing and tune out sights and sounds that aren’t as immediately important”? According to Horowitz, “In this case, your brain works like a set of noise-suppressing headphones, with the bottom-up pathways acting as a switch to interrupt if something more urgent …. grabs your attention.”

Needless to say in a world filled with sensory overload and virtually limitless access to information, while hearing is easy, it’s because increasing difficult to hone the skill of listening.

But Horowitz says that like any other skill, we can train our listening. Think of how his conclusion applies to our work:

“’You never listen’ is not just the complaint of a problematic relationship, it has also become an epidemic in a world that is exchanging convenience for content, speed for meaning. The richness of life doesn’t lie in the loudness and the beat, but in the timbres and the variations that you can discern if you simply pay attention.”

It IS difficult to get people to focus on, to pay attention to the abortion issue, and for many reasons. However, it’s not because abortion is trivial; in fact  it resonates with an impulse (to protect our own) we’ve tried to mute.

Rather, it is hard to get people to pay attention because abortion is off their “cognitive radar.” Why? Both because they do not see the danger that abortion poses to unborn children AND their mothers, and because they do not see how wonderful it is, how ennobling it is, to stand up against those who tell women that abortion is the “easy” way out.

And to be clear, it is very, very easy to see why women in a crisis pregnancy situation do not “pay attention.” This is not welcomed news, it startles them (to borrow from Horowitz’s first stage of hearing), and the first instinct is to flee—to get “out” of the situation by aborting the baby.

One of our tasks—our principle task short-term—is to slow down the rush to (fatal) judgment, to help the mother see we care. In explaining how we can train the skill of listening, Horowitz offers a relevant insight. He is talking about our “significant others,” but it applies perfectly here:

“Listen to your significant other’s voice — not only to the words, which after a few years may repeat, but to the sounds under them, the emotions carried in the harmonics.”

We need to be able to listen to what is underneath the pregnant teen’s (or woman’s) statement that she wants an abortion. In many, many cases, it is a declaration in the form of a question. She is asking, “Does it matter to you? Do I matter to you?”

When she sees that this DOES matter to us, that we ARE listening, often times the panic subsides and reason replaces fright.

And what a glorious day that is—for her, her unborn baby, and for you.

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