cover image The Universal Sense: 
How Hearing Shapes the Mind

The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind

Seth S. Horowitz. Bloomsbury, $25 (320p) ISBN 978-1-60819-090-4

Brown University neuroscientist Horowitz has pulled off an unusual feat. His science book, about the way hearing shapes the “evolution, development, and day-to-day function of the mind,” can be genuinely poetic. It is also laced with humor. Horowitz says he attempted less a text than a venue for imparting “wonder.” He succeeds, unearthing one little-known gem after another. There are no deaf vertebrates, signaling hearing’s importance. Everywhere there is energy, there is sound: solar winds “howl”; black holes thrum in B-flat. Human hearing is “faster-than-thought,” can capture “a wide range of tones and timbres that visual color cannot hope to match,” and more “flexibility” than taste and smell. All this lets sound “drive a fantastic range of subconscious elements in the living organism.” Horowitz beautifully describes how the evolution of fervently communicating life forms changed the sounds of early earth “from incidental noise to songs.” He explains how hearing rewires our brains into adulthood, and notes that hearing can prompt our neurons to release pleasurable oxytocin when exposed to musical frequencies, yet sicken us at other frequencies (inner-city noise has been linked to heart problems). The ability to hear is still, by and large, a mystery. This is an often eloquent introduction to what is known. (Sept.)