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Learning by Hearing, Learning by Seeing

Sound and vision work differently as metaphors for learning

In the hands of great fiction-writers, sensory descriptions do more than convey what characters hear or see. In the craft-talk of writers, descriptions can “do work for a story,” hinting at what characters are thinking and feeling in the context of particular scenes. Descriptions that report what characters sense often work figuratively as well as literally. For cultural and physiological reasons, the senses work differently when used as metaphors. Sound and vision, on which I'll concentrate, can both be used to represent discovering, learning, and knowing. But sight and sound imply different kinds of learning, divergent paths to distinct truths. The different ways that sound and vision work as metaphors may offer insights into cultural understandings of the senses and the ways that sensory systems work.

“Metaphor” derives from the Greek verb “metapherein,” to transfer, and denotes a transfer of meaning from one concept to another. In literary terminology, a metaphorical “vehicle,” a relatively better-known concept (such as a box of chocolates), is used to transfer meaning to a lesser-known concept, the “tenor” (such as life). A metaphor is no simple substitution or comparison. In the 1950s, philosopher Max Black pointed out that a resonant metaphor can change the way people think about both the vehicle and the tenor, about the box of chocolates and about life (Black 283-85).

As a metaphorical vehicle for learning, sound has a shadier reputation than sight. Consider the connotations of “I saw” vs. “I heard,” or of “insight” vs. “hearsay.” Despite the legitimate protests that American culture privileges verbal over visual learning, paradoxically, Americans also privilege sight over sound as the securest route to knowledge. What one has “seen” is more likely to be believed as true; what one has “heard” comes across as removed from the truth, mediated by language, and not much better than gossip.

The use of vision to represent knowledge goes back to Greek philosophy and may be as old as humankind. Plato’s cave allegory in the Republic (c. 380 BCE), compares the predicament of uneducated people to that of prisoners watching shadows cast by puppets in a poorly lit cave. True enlightenment would mean seeing the sun shining in the world outside, for which ignorant people are unprepared (Plato 747-752). During the 18th-century Enlightenment period, vision, light, and clarity worked as metaphors for the acquisition of knowledge through reason. In the sciences, especially, vision has been used as a way to describe understanding models and systems of logic. “I see” means “I understand,” whereas “I hear you” means something quite different: it implies a more emotional understanding.

In literature, metaphors that represent learning through seeing often (but not always) work as they do in philosophy and mainstream culture. Characters may learn the truth when they see something they aren’t supposed to see, or when they see someone in an unexpected context. Less attention has been paid to the ways that characters learn through hearing, and to the differences between visual and auditory metaphors for approaching knowledge.

Recently, my research and teaching have shown me that while vision often represents reason-based paths to truth, hearing can offer intuitive paths to unpleasant realizations. The truth a character discovers through sound may be one s/he has known all along but doesn’t want to know. Discoveries mediated through sound often involve the presence of a predator, or of a fact one has long denied and can no longer suppress. In Ethan and Joel Cohen’s film version of No Country for Old Men (2007), the faintest ticking in a near-silent soundtrack reveals the presence of the predator. A glimpse of the hunter would inform the audience in a different way and carry a different emotional impact.

Edgar Allan Poe Daguerrotype, May-June 1849. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
Source: Edgar Allan Poe Daguerrotype, May-June 1849. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Few writers have represented sound more powerfully than Edgar Allan Poe, who organized “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) around sonic vibrations. His tale comes from the perspective of a man who visits a melancholy school friend and slowly discovers how sick his friend is. Roderick Usher suffers from a “morbid acuteness of the senses,” especially a “morbid condition of the auditory nerve” (Poe 114, 117). In his body, as in the stones of his house, the material is just barely holding together, as though one strong set of vibrations could disintegrate it. Such a shock comes when Roderick’s twin sister, Madeline, dies and Roderick and his friend seal her in the family vault. Poe pulls readers into the story by writing that the door’s “immense weight caused an unusually sharp, grating sound, as it moved upon its hinges” (Poe 121).

Poe then uses sound to drive the story toward its emotional climax. During a violent storm, the protagonist reads a romance to Roderick and hears increasingly real echoes of the sounds in the story. They are coming from the bowels of the Usher house. Finally Roderick murmurs: “Yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long--long--long--many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it--yet I dared not--Oh pity me, miserable wretch that I am!--I dared not--I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb!” (Poe 127). Roderick and Madeline die in each other’s arms, and the friend barely escapes their collapsing house. Through sounds perceptible to Roderick long before the protagonist can hear them, Poe conveys truths too terrible to “see.” A young woman has been buried alive, and the whole Usher dynasty will sink into the earth--as will the protagonist, someday.

On human faces, eyes and ears lie close together, and both deliver vital sensory information. Once processed by human brains, however, visual and auditory information offer different, complementary ways of knowing the world, and they form varying emotional associations. Many languages divide the immense turf covered by the English verb, “to know.” Spanish offers “saber” and “conocer”; German, “wissen” and “kennen,” which distinguish knowing information (saber, wissen) from having a personal acquaintance with someone or something (conocer, kennen). It would be too simplistic to align vision with information; and hearing, with personal acquaintance, but culturally, the metaphorical associations with vision and sound run this way. Despite the proximity of eyes and ears, hearing may be a more intimate, personal sense than vision, closely aligned with touch and with movement, as Rachel Kolb has proposed in a marvelous New York Times article (Kolb). People hear when sonic waves enter the auditory canal and cause the stereocilia of hair cells in the inner ear to vibrate. When people hear, the world touches them. For this reason, as well as for cultural ones, writers may be using vision and hearing to represent different kinds of learning.

I am grateful to the students in my "Literature and the Senses" class at Emory University, especially Carolyn Koehnke and Raul Perez Zarate, for leading me to these ideas.


Black, Max. (1954-55). “Metaphor.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 55: 273-94.

Kolb, Rachel. (2017). “Sensations of Sound: On Deafness and Music.” The New York Times. November 3.

Plato. (1980). The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Including the Letters. Edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Poe, Edgar Allan. (2006). The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales. New York: Signet.

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