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Think Science: Listening

Jim Dalglish
Dr. Peter Fox illustrates brain activity for the audience

If you’ve been tuned in to TPR for any amount of time over the past month, you know about our Dare To Listen campaign, where we’re encouraging open dialogue, civil discourse, and listening—to new ideas, to new concepts, to different opinions, maybe even a different type of music. But most of all, we’re encouraging you to listen to each other.

What we strove to learn about at Think Science: Listening is how listening affects us. What goes on in our brains, and in our body, when we hear sounds like speech or music? How do we respond to sound? To answer these questions, TPR brought in two experts.


  • Dr. Peter Foxprofessor in the UT Health Science Center Department of Medicine and director of its Research Imaging Institute, earned his medical degree from Georgetown University School of Medicine, interned at the Duke University School of Medicine and completed his residency and fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis. He was a senior staff scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Mind/Brain Institute before joining the UT Health Science Center in 1991. Under Dr. Fox’s leadership, the Research Imaging Institute has amassed one of the world’s largest arrays of imaging equipment for research. As such, it is the venue for numerous joint research studies conducted with established scientists  throughout Texas and collaborators from as far away as Hong Kong and Beijing.
  • Dr. Ellen Shrouf has been a practicing clinician for over 30 years. Initially a speech therapist, she went back and re-trained as a psychologist  (Educational Psychology, University of Texas at Austin) becoming licensed in 1999. She has taught as an adjunct at two local universities, worked in schools, for-profit and not for profit organizations, hospitals, and government agencies, with people throughout the lifespan from infants/toddlers to the "old-old." Currently in long term care and physical rehabilitation, she also maintains a private practice. Some of Dr Shrouf's greatest areas of interest are learning, anxiety, parenting, and aging. 

Dr. Fox opened his presentation by sharing resources for learning about basic neuroscience concepts, including TED Talks, the National Institute of Health, and his own research, BrainMap, an online database of neuroimaging experiments that pinpoint active areas of the brain as they respond to visual or auditory stimuli. In his talk, Dr. Fox showed through these imaging slides the parts of the brain that respond to sound, and differentiated them with the parts of the brain that interpret the meaning of those sounds. He also dispelled the myth that people only use 10% of their brains, noting the imaging studies clearly show otherwise! There’s activity in nearly all of our mind.

Dr. Shrouf’s talk concentrated on the way we listen and interpret sounds, from background music, to the sounds of nature, to speech and conversation. Dr. Shrouf explained the three levels of listening to other people:

Content: What’s being said, the words or facts you’re hearing.

Feelings: By listening for the feeling in words, and observing as you listen, you can foster empathy.

Dr. Ellen Shrouf (left) demonstrates how mimicking subject behavior can create empathy.

Dr. Shrouf used the example of a frustrated teenager and parent (photo at right), and explained that mirroring their body language can actually build empathy and trust, allowing each party to open up to one another.

Context: This is where you really understand the other party. “I get where you’re coming from,” you might say.

Dr. Shrouf shared some of the roadblocks to compassion and understanding, including judgment and placing demands on others. She offered that a good way to practice listening is to engage in mindful meditation, where you concentrate on the “right now” through slow, natural rhythm. 

Wrapping up her point about how powerful listening can be, Dr. Shrouf used the example of the Truth and Reconciliaton Commissions that were formed in South Africa in 1994, when the "oppressors and the oppressed" met to share their stories and feelings about life under Apartheid.

Think Science is made possible byThe University of Texas at San Antonio

Credit University of Texas at San Antonio

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”
Ernest Hemingway