Tuning the Ear, Transforming the Self
A profile of Alfred Tomatis, the renegade French physician who discovered how sound shifts the brain and body
The Most Interesting Doctor No One Has Ever Heard Of…
During my first week of college, I walked into a second-hand bookstore on a whim and picked up a book called “The Conscious Ear” by Alfred Tomatis. Tomatis was a French doctor (ENT) and researcher active during the 20th century, whose research on the auditory system revolutionized the clinical understanding of its role in the body. Additionally, he pioneered the Tomatis Method, a technique to help people learn languages, tackle learning disabilities, and in some cases, overcome autism or developmental traumas.
Yet, the more I learned about Tomatis and read the success stories of his famous patients- including the opera star Maria Callas, actor Gerard Depardieu, and musician Sting- the more shocked I was that no one I knew had ever heard of him. From a clinical perspective, this isn’t surprising since: 1. Tomatis did not keep detailed statistical records of his research and 2. Tomatis’ research, which suggested now well-known concepts such as neuroplasticity and intrauterine hearing, was far ahead of contemporary clinical science and was therefore not widely accepted.
Fascinated simultaneously by Tomatis’ incredible ideas and relative obscurity, I want to first highlight three of his ideas and why they’re still- perhaps especially- relevant today:
1. The Ear is a Gateway to the Brain and Body
A persistent myth about hearing is that sound is passively received into the body. Yet, starting at 18–20 weeks, once the auditory system in the fetus is fully formed, hearing involves a dynamic relationship between the individual and the sound-filled environment. The developing fetus requires meaningful stimuli from the mother’s voice, body, and environment for proper neurological development. Even after birth, sounds entering the ear impact not only the auditory system, but the vestibular system (motor skills & balance), the voice, the brain, and the psychological/emotional state as well.
Tomatis’ first discovery of the importance of hearing had to do with the relationship he discovered between the ear and the voice:
“I showed that when blind spots (scotomas) are artificially introduced by a system of filters into a subject’s hearing (by installing deflectors and preventing a particular frequency from passing), then the vocal qualities of that subject are correspondingly modified. According to the position of the scotoma on the spectrum, one’s voice may become more sonorous, more nasal, clearer, or warmer in tone.” (Tomatis, The Conscious Ear 49–50)
In short, Tomatis found that changes in a patient’s hearing led to changes in other parts of the body, especially the voice.
Not only does sound transform the body it enters, but the body also controls what sounds are able to enter in the first place, by adjusting the muscles of the inner ear. It is these inner ear muscles that allow you to focus on a specific conversation at a crowded party or, if they are damaged by physical or emotional trauma, do not allow you to distinguish signal from noise in an overwhelming environment. It is this feedback relationship between body and environment that allows a baby to grow into an adult that is able to make sense of the sounds in a chaotic environment like Times Square.
2. The Ear Can Be Retrained
As his career progressed, Tomatis invented a device that would allow more targeted hearing experiments and therapeutic treatments: The Electronic Ear.
“The problem was to auditorially condition and train the ear so it could take up a self-listening posture and create a quality utterance. This posture is brought about by a tension of the eardrum produced by means of regulating the muscles of the malleus and the stirrup (the two muscles of the inner ear).” (Tomatis, The Conscious Ear 59)
The Electronic Ear allowed Tomatis to “give new ears” to his patients. The device utilized electronic gating, bone conduction transducers, and sound filters to manipulate the frequencies patients heard and, in doing so, re-trained their ears. Gradually, this process conditioned the ears to a new way of hearing in everyday life. Interestingly, the music Tomatis used in therapies- and which Tomatis therapists continue to use- was derived from Gregorian Chants, Mozart, or the voice of the patients’ mothers.
3. The Three Parameters of Language
Tomatis ultimately defined three parameters characterizing a spoken language: 1) The selective field, or basic frequency band, of a language 2) The slope of this band, or how it changes across frequencies 3) Latency time, or the time it takes someone to listen to himself. By understanding the fundamental parameters of language, Tomatis was able to measure the listening ability of a patient across multiple dimensions to understand exactly what process was impaired and how to retrain it.
As he applied the Electronic Ear to his patients, Tomatis found that not only did he see changes to their hearing and voices, but often muscular, emotional, psychological, and learning issues improved as well. Eventually, Tomatis began to directly address the auditory aspects of conditions as diverse as dyslexia, stuttering, ADHD, schizophrenia, and autism. For example, working with stuttering patients, Tomatis treated the patients by retraining the latency time of their self-hearing; he addressed cases of autism and language learning by adjusting the listening curve to perceive the desired sound range of speech and meaningful sound. With time, the Tomatis Method has continued to refine a listening test to provide the best information possible on what listening impairments a patient has and how these can be addressed therapeutically.
By the time of his death, Tomatis had left behind not only a series of discoveries linking the ear to the rest of the body, but a complete method detailing how the ear can be reconditioned for language learning, vocal training, speech therapy, and healing. His genius was not just in understanding the interconnectedness and plasticity of the body in response to sound, but in seeing the surprising ways in which many conditions or disabilities can be framed as communication problems and treated as such. Though his method has been validated in treating a variety of health and developmental conditions (Gilmore 1999, Neysmith-Roy 2011), Tomatis’ work is still not widely known; but therapists practicing the Tomatis Method exist around the world for those lucky enough to find them.
In addition to his professional legacy, what struck me most about Tomatis was his blending of philosophy, spirituality, and science when discussing his work:
“By perfecting tools specially designed to re-establish dialogue between one organ and other and between an organ and one’s whole being, that our future work lies. It is no exaggeration to state that every disharmony in listening brings with it a disharmony in a human being’s total integration, whether this manifests itself against some other person or against one’s own self.” (Tomatis, The Conscious Ear 190)
In an era of constant distraction, social and political discord, rising numbers of health issues and disabilities, and social media that won’t shut up, Tomatis’ method of bringing the body back into harmony through listening strikes me as the perfect healing metaphor and antidote for modern times.