The Science Behind “Faith Comes By Hearing”

From Genesis 1, where God spoke creation into being, to His Word, which He has given us as a biography about Himself, to His Gospel, which comes to us through hearing and leads to faith—words and hearing are obviously God’s preferred and designed medium through which He communicates to us. But have you ever thought of the mechanism, the very science and God-given design, of your hearing? In recent decades we’ve heard so much about how our learning is “visual” and hearing is to a lesser degree important to grasping and retaining information. Let me suggest that simply is not the case.

Your hearing has a special place and unique design in relation to your brain. A design which gives an optimum place in the mind for processing of auditory input. A section of the brain known as Wernicke’s area is responsible for the processing of sounds and the brain’s understand of language and speech. This area, discovered in 1874 and named after Carl Wernicke, a German neurologist, is the part of the brain that understands syllables and connects them as spoken words.

One interesting fact about Wernicke’s area is its relationship to the celebral cortex, the “grand central station” of the brain where our conscious thoughts reside and we form mental images. Wernicke’s area is connected to the cortex and by the most direct route. Our ability to make speech, housed in another area of the brain called Brocha’s area, and speech processing in Wernicke’s area, are interconnected by a large tract of matter called the artcuate fasciclus, to each other and the cerebral cortex. These interconnections form a sort of “information superhighway” for the processing of sound and speech, which is not present in our other senses.

This is unlike eyesight, which is actually a lesser “sense” in terms of its signal processing in the brain. Visual input—what you see—crisscrosses left to right in the brain at the optic chiasma, then passes through several layers and junctions in the brain to arrive at the visual cortex in the cerebellum, located in the occipital lobe, at the very back of the brain. Although the visual cortex is physically the largest part of the brain when it comes to sensory processing, most of this area is now known to be dedicated to processing of spacial relationships—where you are and how your body is oriented—which is the greatest input your mind receives with respect to movement and balance. In other words, the majority of your vision input is used by your mind to indicate where you are and how you are physically oriented in place.

It is your ears that have the most direct access to your conscious mind. So strong is the connection between the ears, Wernicke’s area, and the cerebral cortex, that some processing of what you hear is done subconsciously. This is why, for instance, you can be listening to someone talk, and not really be paying attention, yet still recall what they said. You may have had this happen: Someone is talking to you and your eyes drift off as you stop listening to them. They get upset and say, “Are you listening to me? What did I just say?” You weren’t actually listening, but amazingly you can actually recall their last sentence or two. This is the power of Wernicke’s area and its relation to the cerebral cortex.

But when we read, as in reading the Bible, aren’t we taking input by sight? Actually no. Research shows that when reading words on a page, we actually sound those words out in our minds—your “inner voice”. We know this because testing has shown that when we read it is Wernicke’s area that is processing the input, not the visual cortex. Reading then, is classified by the mind is auditory, not visual, sensory input.

Advertisers have known this for decades. Most people believe that advertising doesn’t really work on them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Television advertising in the United States is among the most effective advertising in the world when tested for recall and long-term retention. But did you know that a unique aspect of the U.S. television broadcast industry is that it was born out of radio stations? In fact, the audio portion of most television ads receives far more attention to detail than you may think. Because many viewers visually tune out ads when their favorite show takes a commercial break, advertisers are keen to infuse memorable sounds into their ads. Using a popular song, for instance, can increase retention by up to 24%.

The rhythm and vocal cadence and voice characteristics of the announcer are meticulously planned. Research shows that advertising jingles—those little songs or tones that you hear with ads—have the highest retention rates of all, with more than 76% of listeners remembering the ad. That’s why you can recall those tones for “Intel Inside” or “N-B-C” or “Oh what a feeling—Toyota!” In research by the Journal of Advertising, 62% of respondents recalled seeing an ad when presented with a  visual cue, yet 83% recalled the ad when given a 10-second musical cue. Still think television ads are all about the visuals?

The bottom line is this: God designed you to learn by hearing. In His great design for your mind He specifically set up hearing as the most powerful and direct input method to the human mind. Modern scientific and psychological research confirm the incredible power of auditory input to our brains. We retain more of what we hear than what we see. Words are given a direct path directly into our minds.

But when you think about it, God has clearly demonstrated His preferred method of teaching us and communicating with us since creation. He could have chosen any means to make the world but He spoke it into being. He did not give us pictograms or write His instructions on the clouds. It is His Word that we have, and that He has made eternal (John 1).

So there is so much more behind the scenes in “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of God” (Romans 10:17). Most of us are familiar with St. Francis of Assisi’s great quote, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” I would suggest that, while memorable, we should not heed its advice. Based on what we know of God’s design for the mind, we must never reject or discount the incredible power of preaching and words that God uses to draw men to Himself. God designed people to hear His Word. So then, let us preach it!


Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.