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Situational Awareness with Hearing

by Steven Steckel

Now that you have mastered the visual aspect of situational awareness its time to try your next most important sense. Your hearing.

We have all been taught since childhood to ignore sounds. As the population density increases there are more sounds that are louder. It always amazes me when I go to a high population density area such as New York City or London, England and how the residents seem to go through life oblivious to the sounds around them. Yet there are published articles in the national news medias from both America and England describing how thieves target victims who are using portable music players as they walk down the street. The iPod from Apple Computer Inc., with its distinctive white ear phones seems to be a favorite target of thieves. I have heard all the arguments about how music is supposed to relax you and how listening to music is supposed to increase your sense of personal space in an ever more crowded city. However, in reality your just becoming a more obvious target.

Personally, I am one of those people who must be able to hear what is behind me. If I can't I feel very paranoid. I'm also a person who, when in a crowded room listens to all the conversations, not just the one I'm personally involved in. It's amazing the things you can hear when other people don't realize you are listening to multiple conversations simultaneously.

I have known several people who were born without eye sight. When ever I was walking up to one of them on a city street they would turn and face me while I was still several meters away. They heard me even with the noise coming from the street. We all have this kind of hearing but we're missing the associations in our brains between sounds and actions. This is mostly due to lack of training and attention to the sounds around us.

To help you form these associations here are a few simple exercises. Goto a public book store, have a seat and pretend you are reading a book. Watch people moving around and listen to the sounds they are making. All people make sounds when they move. You should be able to tell a male from a female and both from a child. Listen for the clicking of the keyboard the sales staff is using and for the swipe sound when a customer passes their credit card through the card reader. Just remember to leave before the sales staff thinks your setting up permanent residency.

Next go to a public area with hard floors such as concrete or stone. These areas aren't as quiet as a book store, so you'll have a chance to identify more sounds coming at you at a faster rate. Listen to how people are walking. You can tell a lot about someone's emotions by listening to how they walk. Listen to the sounds that people, machines and objects make; try to separate and distinguish them from each other, i.e., associate the sound with an action. Soon you will be able to hear a sound behind you and associate that sound with an action or object.

Now for the tough part. Walk down a city street and listen to the sounds. You already know how to ignore sounds. Now you must selectively ignore some sounds and listen to all other sounds. Each sound must be attached to a sound/action pair. This is what the sightless person is doing. This is what I do yet I'm not blind. When you can collect the same amount of information from your environment that the sightless person can, you have achieved situational awareness with hearing or, what we call 'audible situational awareness'. And please take the ear phones out of your ears. The world doesn't need any more targets.

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