Sound and empathy

In previous posts, I talked about music for creatures. Music to convey something about their expressive rhythms and lives, whether they are mushrooms, mosses, or invertebrates.

Today I want to look at the use of sound effects and visualisations of sounds in comics, and their effects. Through sound, creatures seen and unseen become ‘alive’, we don’t even need to see them.

While some creatures are very silent (moss), others very noisy (cicadas) — by listening carefully we might notice more than we thought we could. Sometimes its more metaphorical: Kimmerer writes that noticing moss is more like listening than looking - listening for the quiet sounds. But sometimes its literal: Goulson writes that when he sits next to certain bumblebees, he can actually hear them chomping through flowers.

and who hears? Even plants can pick up vibrations. some can hear caterpillar's chewing vibrations,  and release an insect-dettering oil in response. In other plants flowers themselves might act like an ear. Flowers can hear buzzing bees—and it makes their nectar sweeter.

And there is evidence that insects and plants "hear" each other's sounds. Bees buzz at just the right frequency to release pollen from tomatoes and other flowering plants. And bark beetles may pick up the air bubble pops inside a plant, a hint that trees are experiencing drought stress.

caterpillars send vibrations with their butts:

Roots emit clicks!
Gagliano and her colleagues recently showed corn seedling's roots lean toward a 220-Hertz purr, and the roots emit clicks of a similar tune. Chili seedlings quicken their growth when a nasty sweet fennel plant is nearby, sealed off from the chilies in a box that only transmits sound, not scent, another study from the group revealed. … "We have identified that plants respond to sound and they make their own sounds," Gagliano said. "The obvious purpose of sound might be for communicating with others.

Sound is so fundamental to life that some scientists now think there's a kernel of truth to folklore that holds humans can commune with plants. And plants may use sound to communicate with one another.

The bowl-shaped flowers of evening primrose may be key to their acoustic capabilities.
Hadany’s team looked at evening primroses (Oenothera drummondii) and found that within minutes of sensing vibrations from pollinators’ wings, the plants temporarily increased the concentration of sugar in their flowers’ nectar. In effect, the flowers themselves served as ears, picking up the specific frequencies of bees’ wings while tuning out irrelevant sounds like wind.

how to visualise sound and hearing? (a kind of synaesthesia)
Sounds can be conveyed through shape and colour, simple conventions of visual language

sound effects don’t have to be audible sounds to the human ear - they can also provide descriptions of actions that potentially make tiny tiny sounds (groom groom)

or artist that make the inaudible audible by ‘translating’ bio electric pulses into sound, creating plant music, slime mould music, or spider music.

Tomás Saraceno, who, in his project Arachnid Orchestra, builds up an interspecies ecology of “musicking” (the term is Christopher Small’s), in which spider webs are used as musical instruments, tapping into the structural properties of the spider’s silk, but also into the spider’s sophisticated mode of communication through vibrations.3

In turn, all these little moments of ‘enforced showing’ bring us into a multisensory world which can make us more empathetic to them.

Sound doesn’t just help humans to empathetically notice other creatures, but it may even have an important role to play in empathy amongst creatures themselves.

I quote from Even Kirksey’s book Emergent Ecologies:

“Leaf-eating caterpillars have noise-making organs that attract ants. The sounds made by caterpillars average at 1877 hertz, which would be audible to human ears if they were not so very faint.  Their repertoire ranges from simple sounds like “bub…bub,” to fancier noises such as “beep ah ah ah beep” and “biddup… biddup…biddup.” Caterpillar calls summon ants to their defence against predatory wasp and parasitic flies. As a reward for responding to the summons, the caterpillars secrete a liquid gift — a nutritious liquid that is significantly higher in amino acid concentrations than the plant nectar.”

“Are ants aware of the caterpillar’s interest and are they motivated to fulfil them? Quite possibily yes. With intriguing sounds and an anatomical structure similar to ant larvae, it seems plausible that these caterpillars appear to Ectomma as beings (cute baby insects) that demand empathetic regard…”

Even though the ants get a sugary liquid from the caterpillars as a gift, there seems to be more to it than self-interest: responding to the caterpillar’s calls involves a commitment to the wellbeing of others, an awareness of others; an interest and motivation to satisfy those interests.. 

Hearing someone is important. It can remind us of their needs, desires, that things matter to them. That they are alive. This is relevant beyond the human.

Finally, some caterpillars also make noise even ‘scream’ as a kind of protection against predators like birds. I found humorous empathy on youtube. This video humorously ‘translates’ the caterpillar. Anthropomorphic, yes, but empathy, too.


Dave Goulson (2013). A Sting in the Tale. London: Jonathan Cape