The Tomatis Method of Auditory Stimulation: AnOverview
Valerie Dejean, OTR, Director, Spectrum Center and Alex Freer
Most of us think of the ears as a gathering place for sound. We know that we use our ears to hear the sounds around us, but we don’t typically think about what happens to the sound that is collected. In addition to collecting sound, the ear makes sense of that sound, using the vibrations we hear to perceive speech and other sounds, filter out unwanted or unnecessary auditory messages, and produce language. The ear also houses the vestibular system, which manages our movement, balance, coordination, and image of our body in space. In fact, the ear coordinates our eye movement during reading and our hand movement during writing. In other words, the ear is at the heart of sensory integration, and thus is the critical link among our senses. If the ear is not functioning to its fullest potential, we cannot function to our fullest potential.
Dr. Alfred Tomatis, a French physician and ear, nose and throat specialist, has spent his lifetime researching the ear. His extensive work with the ear changed our understanding of the role of the ear from a passive receiver of sound to an active control center of the body’s sensory input. Tomatis asserts that improper functioning of the ear is the root problem for individuals experiencing difficulty with language (comprehension and production), auditory processing, sensory integration, learning, coordination, or other related problems. To address this root problem, Tomatis developed a device called the Electronic Ear that, in essence, “reprograms” the ear—via sound stimulation—in order to improve it’s functioning. The Electronic Ear has helped thousands of individuals worldwide, individuals with problems ranging from speech and language difficulties to autism and cerebral palsy.
In order to understand how the Electronic Ear and the Tomatis Method of auditory stimulation work, one must first understand more about how the inner ear functions.
According to Tomatis, “the ear builds, organizes, and nourishes the nervous system.” The body has three main systems that organize sensory information: the vestibular (somatic) system, the visual (spatial) system, and the cochlear (linguistic) system. Two of these systems—the vestibular and the cochlear systems—are housed in the inner ear. The vestibule and the cochlea share a common wall, share common fluid, and perform essentially the same job—the analyses of vibrations. While the cochlea analyzes the vibration of air perceived outside the body (sound), the vestibule analyzes physical vibrations perceived within the body. The intimate connection of these two systems makes them, to a greater degree, interdependent; the functioning of the cochlear system (processing of sound) has a direct impact on the functioning of the vestibular system (body movement and control) and vice versa. For example, individuals with total hearing loss also tend to have difficulty with balance and coordination. Similarly, Occupational Therapists and Speech Therapists will attest to the marked improvement in speech production (controlled by the cochlea) following a gross motor activity such as swinging (vestibular stimulation).
Tomatis recognized the vestibular function of the ear as the primary sensory integrator. The vestibular system detects motion and gravity, and controls all motor functions plus muscle tone, balance, coordination (including coordination of eye movements and coordination of movements between the two sides of the body), and body image. Because the vestibular system allows individuals to have a sense of the relationship between the self and space, it lays the groundwork upon which visual images are superimposed. Finally, it is the “programming unit” of the nervous system, which is directly connected to the cerebral cortex—the portion of the brain responsible for high order processes such as language, reading, writing, and logical thought. The vestibular system, together with the cochlear system, creates the vital link between touch, vision, and hearing.
As you can see, the ear plays an intimate role in the overall coordination of all of our senses. But the ear does even more than coordinate information and sends it to the brain—it is also responsible for giving the brain its essential nourishment and energy.
The Energy Function
The brain receives more stimulation from the ear than from any other organ—60% of total stimuli comes from the body (via bones, joints, and muscles) through the vestibular system to the brain, while another 30% of total stimuli comes from sound processed by the cochlea. This energy is “nourishment for the brain” according to Tomatis. Research has proven that the brain must have sensory stimuli in order to think and operate with vitality. If an individual is unable to listen to or process sounds, brain activity is slowed—the individual begins to feel fatigued or depressed. Conversely, a “well-tuned” ear is able to stimulate the brain, providing increased energy, concentration, attention span, and cognitive skills. Additionally, Tomatis points out that it is high frequency sounds—sounds rich in high harmonics—and not all sound that energizes the brain, since the cells of Corti (receptor cells that transmit sound wave messages to the brain) are more densely packed in the area receptive to high frequency sound.
The Listening Function
Hearing is not the same as listening, a critical truth underlying Tomatis’ work. Hearing is the passive process of receiving sound, while listening is the ability and the desire to actively focus on select sounds and interpret their meaning, while also blocking out irrelevant sounds. Many children with learning difficulties are poor listeners, yet hearing tests indicate that they have excellent hearing. Tomatis defines listening chiefly as a process of focusing the ear, both physiologically and psychologically.
According to Tomatis, the physical act of focusing the ear is performed by two middle ear muscles (the stapedius and the tensor tympani). The two muscles work like a telescope lens, constantly adjusting to fine tune low, middle and high frequency sounds. In some cases, the middle ear muscles can become weakened, which compromises auditory perception and, in turn, impacts auditory processing, language and academic skills.
In addition to the physiological aspects of listening, active listening also requires intention—the psychological desire to focus on sound. Of all our senses, hearing is the first to develop in utero—by four and one half months gestation, the ear is fully formed and functional. The fetus hears a constant background noise of intrauterine sounds, such as the mother’s heartbeat, respirations, and intestinal gurgling, which is interrupted at irregular intervals by the mother’s voice. According to Tomatis, the mother’s voice penetrates into the intrauterine world via bone conduction, and thus the fetus hears only the higher frequency sounds of the mother’s voice. According to Tomatis, the mother’s voice is not only an emotional nutrient to the child, but also prepares the child to acquire language after birth. In other words, listening begins in the womb.
The development of language is intrinsically tied to proper functioning of the ear. The foundation is laid in utero by the baby’s anticipation of the mother’s voice. After birth, a baby will babble to hear it’s won voice—the precursor for the development of language, and the means by which the ear attunes itself to the sound of the human voice. According to Tomatis, “the voice can only produce what the ear perceives.” Any difficulties that interrupt proper listening during this important time of language acquisition can have a lasting impact on language development. For example, a child who suffers from frequent ear infections may develop a speech disorder since he has not heard sounds and words properly as he developed language. Tomatis also identifies the right ear as the leading ear for language control. In most individuals the right ear takes the leading role in control of the voice and language presumably because the “ear-to-brain-to-larynx-back-to-ear” loop is more direct the right ear (Madaule, When Listening Comes Alive, page 44). If, however, the right ear does not assume control, either the left ear will, or neither will (That is, dominance will not develop). Language development and voice production may be problematic as a result.
Tomatis Method of Auditory Stimulation
As mentioned, in order to facilitate effective listening, Tomatis developed the Electronic Ear. The Electronic Ear addresses both the physiological and psychological aspects of listening. First the Electronic Ear exercises the muscles of the middle ear to strengthen them, improving their ability to focus on particular sounds and filter out other sounds. Second, the Electronic Ear replicates the sounds heard in utero—music is played (primarily Mozart) or a recording of the mother’s voice is utilized, while the Electronic Ear filters out the lower frequencies so that only the higher, more stimulating frequencies are heard. This stimulates the inner ear physically, giving it an opportunity to reprogram itself, and also replicates the in utero experience of the individual, often leading to a renewed desire to communicate. There is also an active phase of the Tomatis Method called “audio-vocal training”. After “retraining” the ear to hear a wider range of frequencies, the audio-vocal portion of the Tomatis Method helps individuals enhance the higher frequencies in their voice. At the same time, the right ear is stimulated to augment its role as the leading ear.
For more information or to schedule an appointment please contact the Listening Center:
Santa Rosa, California (707) 575-1468
Walnut Creek, California (925) 952-4724