Society has been attempting to understand the opposite sex since the beginning of time. And despite exhaustive(ing) attempts at serious literary commentary and psychological analysis, I don’t think we’re actually any closer.
I used to think my boyfriend had selective eyesight.
‘I swept today’ he would tell me, proud as punch after I came home after a sixteen-hour uni-surf-work-study day.
And I’d kiss him and thank him, all the while secretly wondering, ‘Why?’
Why, when I had swept just the day before, did you choose to valiantly repeat that particular task, whilst leaving the stack of dishes, skid marks in the toilet and laundry pile completely unnoticed?
Then I realised: He just didn’t see it.
We already know women’s visual experience is vastly different to that of men.
Not that he’s blind – it’s just that he’s gifted with a little less attention to detail. Scientifically speaking, the range of colours he can process is smaller than what I’m capable of experiencing, and that’s got to do with the rods, cones and neurons which power his sight being physically different from my own ocular toolkit.
Yet, when it comes to hearing, even though we’re identical in anatomy and structure, the opposite sexes’ experiences are worlds apart.
I asked my (boy) sound engineer friend, ‘Do men like music louder than women?’
He said, ‘No way’.
Sure, he vaguely remembered a uni lecture that spoke of women’s sensitivity to higher pitch frequencies, like that of a baby crying. But that was about it – he’d noticed no appreciable difference in his career as a sound engineer, or as a connoisseur of share house cacophonies.
‘So, no.’ He said again.
But my mate was wrong.
What does science say about the way women hear the world?
Each sound has a pitch and timbre.
Every sound also has its own amplitude, usually measured in decibels.
Each sound also has a three-dimensional location.
And these, the constituents of sound have their own parameters – all of which are processed in a really, fucking complex manner. It is this complex brain processing that can significantly alter things on the perception end.
Just as two people may perceive a situation in two completely different manners, two individuals can be lead to experience the same sound in vastly different ways.
Leonard Sax, a physician with over thirty years experience and a psychology PhD to boot, conducted a study in 2010 regarding sex differences in hearing. His paper – which found that boys and girls showed markedly different sound perceptions even though their auditory threshold (ability to hear) is the same – has become a pivotal tool for understanding how these differences affect behaviour.
We (as a human collective) have been looking at this question for a while now.
Earlier studies by Diane McGuinness in 1974 measured the sensitivities of women and men to loud tones. Unsurprisingly, women were found to be more sensitive.
This notion was further investigated in 2007 by Sagi, D’Alessandro and Norwich, who tested the variability in their subjects’ identification of what they deemed the ‘loudness’ of tones at different intensities to be. They found that “young women adapt to steady tones to a greater extent than men of the same age”.
Then, in 2003, D.S. Rogers and colleagues measured subjects’ most comfortable listening levels and acceptance of background noises. As it turns out, chicks have far less tolerance for a cluttered auditory environment than guys.
How does this play out in real life?
Across the board, these studies revealed:
1. Women are more sensitive to sound than men;
2. Women can more accurately tell when a tone is getting louder than men can;
3. Men have a higher tolerance of background noise than women do.
So basically, mum will be the first to notice when you creep the volume back up to that bloody annoying level, whereas it won’t even pass dad’s importance threshold.
And, she’ll also be the one that hears your muttering when she tells you to turn it down again.
But, if you ever find yourself in a jam and need to call one of your parents in or from a noisy location, mum’s the word.
Because, like the need to sweep two days in a row, it’s a matter of sensitivity.