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What's The Difference Between Hearing and Listening?

There is often confusion about the difference between hearing and listening. This is partly because listening depends on the ability to hear. Generally, however, hearing refers to the ability to process sounds and is considered an automatic process that is not consciously directed. The physiology of the ear and the brain is such that sound waves are received in the ear and sent to the brain for automatic decoding.


  • Interpreting the sound heard
  • Active
  • Cognitive engagement
  • Voluntary
  • Often requires a response


  • Perception of the sound by ears
  • Passive 
  • No cognitive engagement
  • Involuntary
  • No response is required or expected
what's difference between hearing and listening



Listening involves more than just hearing. It's about the conscious interpretation of the sounds we hear:

  • Involves Attention and Additional Senses: This process requires focused attention. It often includes taking in information from other senses, particularly sight, to fully grasp the context.

  • Scanning and Evaluating Non-Acoustic Cues: Listening extends to the evaluation of non-acoustic cues, like gestures and facial expressions. This is essential for interpreting the full meaning behind what is being said, not just the auditory component.

  • The Interpretive Process and Brain Function: The act of listening involves complex brain and mind functions. It includes creating coherent stories to understand and explain our world's happenings.

  • Beyond Hearing to Interpretation: Listening typically encompasses both the act of hearing and the subsequent interpretation. It's a two-fold process involving physical perception and mental processing.

  • Critical Life Skill for Success: Listening is often recognized as a crucial life skill. It's fundamental for effective communication, building relationships, developing general life skills, and achieving success.


Hearing is primarily a physiological activity. It involves the perception of sound through the ears, a natural and automatic function of the body:

  • Passive Experience: Unlike listening, hearing is a passive process. It doesn't require conscious effort or attention. Sounds are detected by the ears without active engagement.

  • Involuntary Act: Hearing occurs without a deliberate attempt. It's an involuntary response to sound waves reaching the ears.

  • No Cognitive Engagement Required: This process does not necessarily involve engaging the brain in any cognitive activity like interpretation or analysis.

  • Detection of Sounds Only: Hearing is limited to the detection of sound frequencies and volumes. It doesn't extend to the understanding or interpretation of these sounds.

  • No Response Expected: When we hear something, there's no inherent expectation for a response or reaction, unlike listening, which often requires some form of feedback.

Hearing vs Listening

This distinction between automatic, unconscious hearing and conscious and directed listening is actually a little misleading. The fact is that hearing, like all sensory processes, is also influenced by personal experience and how the brain is trained. Past experiences will train the brain to be selective to sensory input and to automatically focus on what it considers the most important input and information.

Because listening is a conscious process we tend to assume that it is an entirely conscious process, but that isn't correct. When interpreting what we hear and see, there are many unconscious automatic processes in play. When we attend to do anything, we might be aware of certain aspects of the stimuli that are bombarding our senses and we are consciously aware of the narrative that we are creating.

However, we are also unaware of all the processes that are contributing to these interpretations. William James, the great 19th-century American psychologist, described the host of subconscious factors that influence our perception and thinking, including our past experiences, as "the fringe of consciousness." They influence both the hearing and listening process.

Effective Tips to Become a Better Listener

Having understood the differences between listening vs hearing, you might now be interested in enhancing your active listening abilities:

Cultivate Curiosity

Approach conversations with curiosity. This mindset encourages deeper engagement and understanding, making you more interested in the speaker's message.

Observe Non-Verbal Cues

Good listeners are adept at reading body language and tone changes. Notice if the speaker’s body language or voice tone shifts, as it might indicate emotional charges or defensiveness.

Minimize Distractions

In our world full of distractions, simple actions like putting your phone away or turning from your computer can significantly enhance your focus

Think Before Responding

Take a moment to process what's been said before replying. Reflective thinking shows the speaker that their words are being considered seriously.

Engage in Listening Exercises

With a partner, take turns sharing personal stories, allowing a brief pause between each share. Afterward, discuss the experience of both listening and being heard. This exercise fosters empathy and deeper understanding.

Utilize Verbal Expressions Effectively

Engage in active listening by paraphrasing, asking for clarification, and building upon what the speaker has said. This not only shows attentiveness but also aids in understanding the conversation better.

Embrace Silence and Observation

Sometimes, being silent and observing can offer deeper insights into the conversation. It can also give you time to formulate more meaningful responses.

The Role of Attention in Hearing and Listening

At the heart of the discussion about the differences between hearing and listening, therefore, is the concept of attention. The fact is that most people think of attention as a consciously directed process but that's not entirely accurate. Attention can be a very conscious process as you make a point of focusing on a particular sensory input or your own internal feelings and thoughts. However, attention can also be involuntary, as the brain directs its focus to sensory input it considers important.

Some brains are easily distracted which can make sensory processing problematic. If a brain switches attention before it has fully received sensory input, the processing will be incomplete leading to poor interpretation and understanding. It's interesting to note that a significant number of people who are diagnosed with Auditory processing disorders are also diagnosed with Attention deficit disorders (Learn more about speech disorders here). Some people argue that this is a confusion and that the Attention deficit disorder diagnosis is incorrect. However, if you look at it, fine-tuning attention becomes critical for sensory processing. Interpretation and understanding depend on accurate sensory processing.

Forbrain's Impact on Hearing Attention: Scientific Research

One significant result from scientific research on Forbrain conducted by Professor Charles Escera at the University of Barcelona is that the use of Forbrain improves attention and reduces distractibility. This increase in the brain's attention to sound is not a conscious process, it's a function of subconscious brain training of neuro-physiological processes. Such training improves attention but through a route that is different from the conscious attention that someone makes when they are trying hard to listen.

In Dr. Escera's research, the use of Forbrain was associated with an increase in the brain's attention and a reduction in distractibility. That improves sensory processing and the ability to interpret that information accurately.

Final Words

The journey from merely hearing to actively listening is both crucial and transformative. Understanding what are the differences between hearing and listening is essential for effective communication and meaningful interactions. By adopting the tips provided in the article, one can enhance personal and professional relationships, improve comprehension, and foster a deeper connection with others. 

The brain is a very adaptive organ and various technologies such as Forbrain have shown that the brain can be trained to improve sensory processing through neuro-physiological training and sensory regulation activities rather than conscious effort.


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