The Differences Between Hearing and Listening

All human beings are capable of hearing, but listening involves a series of psychological processes that develop with time and practice. Do you know the difference between the two terms?
The Differences Between Hearing and Listening
Samuel Antonio Sánchez Amador

Written and verified by el biólogo Samuel Antonio Sánchez Amador.

Last update: 14 May, 2024

“You hear me, but you don’t listen to me.” How many times have we humans heard this, regardless of gender, age, and ethnicity? The social relationships between the members of our species go far beyond the primary senses and therefore, we’re not mistaken when we say that there are multiple differences between hearing and listening.

Every human being without hearing impairments is capable of hearing, although not all people can hear and receive (and interpret) the messages that come from the environment. Listening requires attention, processing, and focus, while the auditory process only requires the organs involved to function. Keep reading as we delve further into this topic.

What is hearing?

Before exploring the differences between hearing and listening, we find it interesting to analyze each term separately. After describing both in depth, we’ll look at them in detail.

As the dictionary indicates, hearing can be defined as “the faculty or sense by which sound is perceived.” Expressed in a more technical way, it’s conceived as the perception of sound waves that propagate through space. This ability isn’t unique to human beings and constitutes one of the five universal senses.

Hearing parts

In humans and other vertebrates, hearing takes place thanks to the auditory system. These are its main components among the Homo sapiens species:

  • Outer ear: As its name suggests, it’s the outermost part of the hearing system in humans. It’s made up of the pinna, the external auditory canal, and the tympanic membrane. Its main function is to collect sound energy and direct it towards the eardrum.
  • Middle ear: The middle ear consists of a cavity located in the crag of the temporal bone. It’s made up of the tympanic cage, the group of ossicles (hammer, incus, and stirrup), muscles associated with bone structures, mastoid cells, and the Eustachian tube. Its main function is to transfer vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear.
  • Inner ear: The inner ear is the last section of the auditory system. It consists of the inner labyrinth (the cochlea) and the posterior labyrinth (the vestibular system). The first is responsible for hearing itself, while the second allows us to perceive our own body in the three-dimensional environment and maintain balance.
  • Neural mechanism: The information collected by the cochlea travels through the auditory nerve and reaches the cochlear nucleus, present in the brain stem. After completing a complex journey, the neuronal impulse reaches the primary auditory cortex (A1), where it’s processed and transformed into relevant information.

Hearing is essential in terrestrial vertebrates, which is why it’s found in virtually all of them. This sense not only allows us to create a culture through language, but thanks to it, we also listen to threats from the environment and act accordingly.

What is listening?

Differences between hearing and listening involve interpretation.
Listening to someone during a conversation is a different process than simply listening, as it involves psychological aspects.

The Royal Spanish Academy of Language (RAE) defines the verb to listen as “the act of paying attention to what is heard.” Although it’s completely linked to hearing as a physiological process, listening is a much more advanced step that integrates human cognition, memory, the interpretation of non-verbal language, and much more.

The action of listening is voluntary and implies intention on the part of the subject. It’s possible to debate whether other evolutionarily complex animals are capable of listening to each other (monkeys, dolphins, etc.), but of course, this capacity isn’t as universal as hearing in the strictest sense of the word.

The components of listening

This concept is closely linked to active listening, that is, the ability to interpret and analyze what another human being is communicating when talking to another. These are the skills or bases on which attentive or active listening is founded:

  • Comprehension: Understanding is the human being’s ability (or facility) to perceive things and have a clear idea of them. All listening goes through the understanding of the message that’s being transmitted. We can hear a dog barking, but listening to it is impossible (we attribute a meaning to the barking, although this isn’t clear or objective).
  • Retention: Listening requires memory, as we need to remember what was being expressed a few seconds ago to generate a coherent message in its entirety. It’s also very important to remember the experiences and the way of being of the person who speaks to contextualize the message.
  • Response: A listener must be able to respond to the sound that’s being emitted. On the contrary, we can hypothesize regarding whether or not they interpret the message well (as is the case with patients in a coma). However, this is very difficult to confirm.
  • Evaluation: The listening process can be evaluated with a series of objective criteria. The Active Listening Observation Scale (ALOS) is one of the most reliable methods to achieve this.

On a theoretical level, every human being with adequate brain function and a normal physiological state should be able to listen. Even if you say that someone “isn’t listening,” what you’re really trying to convey is that they’re not paying enough attention to the message. Through the mere act of interpreting the words, one hears, more or less exhaustive listening is already being carried out.

The differences between hearing and listening

It was necessary to lay the foundations of both terms in an exhaustive way, as everything we explained above will help us quickly and easily understand the differences between hearing and listening. Keep reading!

1. Hearing is an ability while listening is a skill

Hearing is the ability to perceive sounds from the environment through the synergistic action of the outer, middle, and inner ears. Every human being without a pathological condition that affects the organs involved has the ability to hear from birth (and even before). Therefore, hearing loss is considered an altered state.

At the same time, we’re born with the ability to hear, but listening develops over time. In order to interpret the verbal message, we must first learn how it works and emit it ourselves, something that happens on average at 9 or 10 months of age. Little by little, we develop the ability to practice active listening, something that’s achieved voluntarily and thanks to experience.

Every person without a pathological condition is born with the ability to hear.
Listening, however, develops with society and context.

2. Hearing is passive while listening is active

This is one of the differences between hearing and listening that’s easier to understand if you use a practical example. Imagine that you’re walking down the street, and later at home, you remember that the traffic was more noisy than usual during the walk. The fact that you record sounds without any effort or intention shows that hearing is completely passive and involuntary.

As indicated by professional portals, listening is anything but passive. It’s not a neutral and anecdotal activity, so it requires paying attention to the language (both verbal and non-verbal) that the other person is emitting. Listening not only involves perceiving sounds in word format, as the message is also made up of the following elements:

  1. The meaning of the spoken words: Sentences contain specific messages, but their meaning depends on the context in which they’re emitted. Saying “stop!” when someone’s making you laugh out loud is one thing while screaming it at someone who’s about to cross a street without looking is quite another.
  2. The intention of the speaker: A person can say a thing with the intention of achieving the opposite of what they end up communicating. Therefore, memory is required to know the personality of the sender of the message in order to give it a context greater than the sum of its parts.
  3. Non-verbal language: The facial muscles, tone, and posture of the sender sometimes reveal more information to us than the message itself.

To capture all these nuances, it’s important to pay attention. Therefore, you can’t say that you listened to something “by accident” or unintentionally. The act of directing our senses toward a specific auditory stimulus is active and voluntary.

Animals hear what happens in their environment involuntarily.
This sense is essential for survival at the individual and species level.

3. Hearing is primary in nature and listening is secondary in nature

Hearing is something natural and continuous and, therefore, primary in human beings. We can’t stop hearing unless we use external tools for this purpose, as our auditory pinna is always open. Even certain parts of the brain are responsible for interpreting sounds while we’re asleep.

Listening is secondary in nature and doesn’t depend solely on the hearing organs to function. One person will never listen the same as another (despite having a similar ear), as the integration and interpretation of the message depends a lot on memory, previous experiences, personality, and perception of oneself. Furthermore, it’s an act circumscribed in time and isn’t constant.

A human being cannot listen for 24 hours a day, but they are able to hear in this interval.
A sound that’s sufficiently loud will wake the deepest sleeper.

4. Hearing is physiological and listening is psychological

This is one of the differences between hearing and listening that has already appeared in this text, so we won’t dwell on it too much. Hearing is explained thanks to a series of physiological processes (the auditory apparatus, neurons, and the brain), whereas individual listening can’t be understood without the psychology of the species and the individual in particular.

The hearing process is the same in all humans in the absense of illness.
Listening is unique and non-transferable, as it depends on the psychological traits of each individual.

5. Hearing only requires one sense while listening involves more

The differences between hearing and listening include their complexity.
During the active listening process, more neural circuits are used for the final interpretation of the message than simply hearing an auditory stimulus.

It may seem redundant, but it should be noted that hearing only requires the sense of hearing. The transmission of the message occurs thanks to the integration of many organs simultaneously, although all are involved in one way or another in the auditory system already described. On the other hand, listening also benefits from sharpening the following senses:

  • Sight: The famous 55-38-7 rule postulates that only 7% of human language depends on the words that are uttered during a conversation. 55% of the message broadcast falls on bodily features, while 38% depends on the tonality of the issuer. Although this postulation has been widely criticized, it shows that sight is essential for listening.
  • Smell: It may seem strange, but smell sometimes helps us to contextualize the message that’s being delivered. If we smell a person’s sweat and combine this event with their words and facial expressions, it’ll be easier for us to interpret that they’re in a moment of stress.
  • Touch: Imagine that a person is talking while you’re hugging them and suddenly you notice something wet on your chest. This simple gesture will help you figure out that they’re crying without having to hear or see anything. Although the sense of touch reports less information than the rest of those mentioned, it’s essential in some communication scenarios.

As you can see, listening involves many more systems that are beyond hearing. The eyes, olfactory receptors, and sensory endings are vital to contextualize the message in its entirety and obtain a clear mental image of what’s being transmitted.

Hearing only requires hearing. Listening always also involves sight and sometimes relies on smell and touch.

The differences between hearing and listening: Which is better?

Now that you know the differences between hearing and listening, you may wonder which of the two concepts is more useful on a day-to-day basis. The reality is that both are essential in their own terrain and the human species can’t be conceived without them. In the absence of hearing, we wouldn’t have survived in the wild, but without listening, there would be no culture, society, or complex relationships.

From a utilitarian point of view, it’s much better to listen than to hear when you’re having a conversation. Hearing only implies recognizing that words are being emitted in our direction, while active listening allows us to remember, know, and, most importantly, empathize with the speaker. It’s crucial to exercise this trait to be the best version of ourselves.

Este texto se ofrece únicamente con propósitos informativos y no reemplaza la consulta con un profesional. Ante dudas, consulta a tu especialista.