Blowing off Steam: Listening with Limbics

Blowing Off Steam

I wonder if there's a real connection between the ears and anger. Why else would we come up with these images of steam blowing out the ears? 

Have you ever had the experience of making a comment, or hearing someone else make a comment, which left you blank, mundane, neutral, or at least not agitated? But then, another person having heard the same thing has a volcanic reaction

Limbic Listening

Nathan Bauman, PhD, wrote to The Hearing Journal to highlight the role of the limbic system in listening. While Dr. Bauman writes about the unsettling effect of hearing aids for a person with partial hearing loss, it also makes me curious about the emotional reactions we may have to what we hear. Does communication breakdown, not because of the content, but because of the emotional reaction we have to the sounds, or perhaps the connotation we place upon what we hear?
As Dr Bauman notes,
"Part of our regulatory auditory mechanism, which tunes and de-tunes our attention process, is the limbic system. It is responsible for assigning more or less attention to a given auditory input. So, if there are multiple auditory inputs, the input most relevant to our conscious and subconscious mechanism receives top priority. When the limbic system detects new and/or more relevant information, it passes it on to the auditory cortex for processing. At the same time, a certain emotional association is assigned to it." (

Emotions and Discernment

By connection, I've lately been wondering about the role of the limbic system in discernment and if we are led by the emotional responses that are processed in the limbic system by what we hear, and the emotional connotation we attach to it. One of the primary roles the limbic system provides is the fight, flight, and freeze reactions, i.e., fear-based reactions. For instance, the limbic system is the system that creates the feeling in us that the roller-coaster ride will kill us. But the process of having the same or similar set of reactions on subsequent trips on the roller coaster may result in "fun" (not me, though). 

Why are the two reactions different? The first is pure emotion and a panic response for survival. The second response engages in "cognitive appraisal" and uses the higher thinking portions of the frontal cortex. 
  • What if we are working with people for whom fear, panic, or anxiety is a present reality?
  • What does hope do to engage more critical thinking and less emotional reactions?
  • How does an anxious church or organization "hear"? 
In my work with congregations experiencing anxiety, I've been impressed by the predisposition they have had toward fear. My immediate role has always been to allay fears. One of the questions that usually emerges in one way or another is, "is there any hope for us?" I always have to say "yes." But I also have to realistically prepare them for difficulty and change. Hope is always a gift. Especially to those with steam coming out of the ears.