Don't Just See the World, Hear the World

How sounds change your brain, and why it means you should travel more

A deserted road in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria on Sept. 2013.
A deserted road in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria on Sept. 2013.

It’s a warm September day in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria. The sun hangs low in the sky as I walk down a hill emerging from the trees and brush. A dark-skinned boy trots by me, riding bareback on his horse. He is heading toward the Romani part of town.

Through my pictures and words, I can share wonderful stories with my readers.

But what do you hear?

I could tell you how the horse’s hooves clobbered on the paved road, or how the dogs were always barking in the distance. Maybe I will mention the birds softly chirping in the breeze. Yet, just as I could write 1,000 words describing the photos I shared with you, I could use the same length of paper trying to explain the intricacy and cohesiveness sounds bring to a scene.

Thanks to Jesse and Jonah Marks, now you can hear what is often so hard to put into words: The Touch of Sound.

Here is a field recording taken by Jesse and Jonah of the same Romani neighborhood I wandered through that day back in 2013:

The sounds you hear bring life to my story in ways other media cannot, a solution brought to us by the Marks brothers’ project called The Touch of Sound. Jesse and Jonah travel around the world, collecting authentic sound recordings of anything from the crashing waves on a Cuban beach to the bustling markets of Vietnam, which they then share on their website.

The Touch of Sound

I met the Marks brothers for the first time when I studied abroad at the American University of Bulgaria three years ago.

Jesse and Jonah Marks
Jesse and Jonah Marks

Jesse, a sound engineer, first began collecting soundscapes on local trips around Minnesota before teaming up with his brother to gather sounds in more than 30 countries.

“It is an impactful moment when we come back from a trip and not only look at photos but listen to sounds of the places we’re at,” Jesse said. 

Jonah loves that the project gives him an excuse to book an extra flight so he can discover someplace new.

“It allows us to interact with a lot of locals,” Jonah said. “We’re there to try and spotlight their city — capture the essence of their city, and people have really rallied behind that. It’s led to some amazing experiences.”

Jonah goes on to say how the project has made globe-trotting all the more special.

“Traveling can be hectic and it’s so easy to just snap a couple photos in the moment and move on, but when we’re recording we just have to sit there and take in the moment — be it one minute, two minutes, or five minutes,” Jonah said.

How Sound Alters the Brain

When it comes to travel, it’s not just about the sights you see or the foods you taste, but also the sounds you hear. What is often regarded as simple background noise in fact adds infinitely to my experiences abroad. But many times, these noises are not even acknowledged by my conscious mind. Often, I forget what a sound like this teaches me:

Hearing a sound like this immediately brings me back to the moments when I stood in the same square, listening to the echoing prayers permeate the city of Istanbul on loudspeakers. Since it is not as easy to describe a sound to friends and family, moments like these are sadly lost. What the Touch of Sound does is it reminds us how emotionally connected we are to certain noises.   

Sound is not just part of our world, it makes our world, says Seth Horowitz, an auditory neuroscientist at Brown University, who spoke with National Public Radio about his research.

“Emotion is one of the most complicated things that the brain has to carry out, and one of the most important drivers of emotion is sound,” Horowitz told NPR. “And the reason it’s so important is because it works underneath our cognitive radar.”

For those interested in learning more about the connections between emotions and sound, Horowitz dives deep into this topic in his 2013 book “The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind.”

How Sounds Improve Memory

When I hear the bells of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, it’s like stepping back in time. I remember the night clearly. We had just finished a show at the National Opera House and were wandering the city of Sofia under the stars. And then I heard the bells.

A favorite song or familiar noise can literally stop me in my tracks, evoking powerful memories of what my life was like when I first heard the sound.

Jesse Marks agrees.

“If you hear a song, your favorite song from 10 years ago, in your head, mentally you go there,” Jesse said. “You think about who you were, who you were friends with, who you were dating when you loved that song.”

Jesse says the same is true for other sounds.

“If it’s from places that somebody has been, they are immediately transported back,” he said.

And if you don’t believe the sound guy, just ask science.

A recent study from National Institute of Neuroscience in Turin, Italy confirms Jesse’s sentiments. Researcher Benedetto Sacchetti and his colleagues trained rats to associate a sound with an electric shock. This caused the animals to freeze whenever they heard the sound.

According to the online journal Live Science, a month later, the researchers created lesions in some of the rats’ brains meant to disrupt the section responsible for processing sound. A month is a long a time for a rat. (As the previous owner of multiple rats, I can attest that they do not live long. They do, however, make great companions when they aren’t advancing science for the human race!)

As you might have suspected, the rats that went under the knife would freeze much less often when they heard the sound, meaning they had trouble recalling the fear memory associated with the electric shock.

“This suggests sensory information — a particular sound — is coupled with emotional information — a memory of fear — and stored in the auditory cortex as a bundle,” Live Science reported. “This allows the sound to acquire an emotional meaning.”

Jesse and Jonah travel
Jesse and Jonah travel

Jesse says that in his profession, sound is often taken for granted.

“When people think of sound, they think of music,” he said. “They don’t necessarily think of the soundscape of their city or their backyard.”

Both Jesse and Jonah encourage people to appreciate sound, whether that’s through TheTouchOfSound.com or in a person’s own travels.

“I think we are giving [contributors] an opportunity to be more in tune with their environment on a regular basis and just pay attention to their surroundings,” Jesse said.

Jesse and Jonah don’t collect sounds on their own. Dozens of contributors from around the world have helped them share sounds from more than 80 countries on the website. The Marks brothers even ship audio recorders at their own expense to anyone interested in joining their community of sound collectors.

“And we’ve gotten most of them back,” Jesse laughs.

Readers can find more information about becoming a contributor on The Touch of Sound website.

Ultimately, the brothers just hope that others can experience the world through sound, whether that means visiting the website to listen to a recording of toucans in Belize or hopping on a bus to discover and experience it all themselves.

“Adventure and opportunities are endless if you just go out there and do it,” Jonah said. “If we just inspire a few people here and there, then that’s a huge success.”

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