How We Hear

The ability to hear and understand is an essential part to our everyday activities and overall quality of life. Unfortunately, many individuals take their hearing for granted until they can no longer communicate with their friends and family.

Regardless of age, we all depend upon our hearing and the ability to communicate every day. At home, communicating with your family, watching and listening to your favorite television programs, talking on the telephone, listening to music, having a conversation in a busy restaurant, or simply hearing the sounds of a coffee maker or microwave oven, even when visiting your doctors or other healthcare professionals. No matter how mild or significant your hearing loss, it interferes with your ability to fully appreciate sounds and experiences.

Unfortunately, most people put off doing something to help them hear better. Individuals with hearing loss wait on average more than 7 years to begin the process of improved hearing. Once you learn more about hearing and take positive action to do something about your hearing loss, you will realize what you may have been missing.

Your hearing is active throughout the entire day. Hearing is not a sense that you can turn on or off; it works on several levels.With our hearing we perceive background sounds, such a traffic noise, or more relevant sounds such as the ringing of an alarm clock. What is most important, however, is the ability to hear speech- to understand and communicate. The ability to hear soft whispers to loud shouts for help. When our hearing ability is reduced, we are no longer able to hear sounds optimally.

Parts of the Ear

The ear consists of three main parts;

Outer Ear

The outer ear includes the visible portion of the ear, called the auricle or pinna, and the ear canal. The pinna is made of cartilage and skin and is formed in the shape of a funnel in order to help gather sound from the environment. This helps in determining the direction of the source of the sound and directing sound down into the ear canal. Sound then travels down the ear canal and into the middle ear.

Middle Ear

The eardrum is a very thin piece of skin that vibrates when sound reaches the membrane. The eardrum acts as the entrance to the air-filled middle ear cavity. Within the middle ear cavity there are three small bones – malleus (hammer), incus (anvil) and stapes (stirrup). These three small bones move back and forth, transferring sound waves into the fluid-filled cavities of the inner ear. Because the middle is filled with air – the air pressure must be equalized to the environmental air pressure by the Eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear with the back of the throat and nose.

Inner Ear

The inner ear consists of both the hearing and balance organs. The hearing organ, called the cochlea, is filled with thousands of sensory hair cells that send neural impulses via the auditory nerve to the part of the brain responsible for understanding. These hair cells are pitch/frequency specific and allow the human ear to hear various loudness levels and pitches of sounds. The semi-circular canals – the organs of balance – are also located within the inner ear.

Nature Gave Us Two Ears for a Reason

Hearing with two ears is called “Binaural Hearing”. Because we have two ears, we are more effectively able to process sound and understand speech. Without such processing, our brain receives an incomplete sound picture.

Imagine for a moment that you have to tie a knot with only one hand. You can still tie a knot, using your body as a support, but it is not as effective as having both of your hands to perform this function. The fact is, most people function better with both hands, and hear better with both ears.

Utilizing the best possible hearing is both ears results in:

  • Better Sound Discrimination – Many sounds which are almost exactly alike when heard with one ear can be more easily differentiated when heard with two ears ( shoe & sue; cup & cut; with & wish.)
  • Improved Understanding – Binaural Hearing (hearing with both ears) helps you sort out and understand individual voices. Our “built-in signal processor” in the brain blends signals from both ears into a more natural single sound “picture” as nature intended. Without such equality, our brain presents us with incomplete information, resulting in difficulty understanding speech.
  • Locating Sound Source – Our brain locates a sound source by measuring the tiny differences in duration and intensity of sound arriving in each ear. These differences are then translated by the brain allowing us to instantaneously recognize a sound’s exact location. When a person hears with only one ear, there is increased difficulty in locating sound. Less Stressful Listening – Listening with only one ear is physically tiring and stressful. With good hearing in both ears you respond more confidently, and you don’t need to always worry about turning your “good ear” towards sounds.