From Ear to There: How Hearing Really Works
Let’s be honest: for most people, a lot of what our bodies do and how they work is a mystery. We know we breathe without thinking about it, blink automatically, and that our hearts pump away without us having to do a thing. But how and why? We probably never give that much thought unless a medical condition – or a bout of insomnia-fueled boredom – inspires some research.
So how our ears help turn sound waves into electrical signals that our brains recognize as sound is something you may have never really considered before.
But understanding how your ears work – and all the moving parts involved in the process – may actually help you protect them from damage that can cause hearing loss, especially as you age. So a basic understanding of how and why we hear is good knowledge to have.
Sound waves, tubes, hair cells and drums
In a nutshell, we hear because our ears help turn sound waves into an electrical signal that the auditory nerve carries to the brain. But of course, like every system in the body, the steps are a bit more complex than that.1
- Sound waves enter our ears and travel down the ear canal that leads to the eardrum.
- The soundwaves make the eardrum vibrate, and those vibrations travel to three tiny bones in the ear.
- The three bones act as amplifiers, sending the vibrations to a fluid-filled, shell-shaped structure called the cochlea.
- The fluid inside the cochlea ripples when the vibrations reach it, and that sends a travelling wave along a membrane called the basilar membrane.
- Hair cells that sit on top of the basilar membrane ride the wave.
- Microscopic hair-like projections that perch on top of the hair cells bump up against an overlying structure and bend. When they do, pore-like channels at the tip of the projections open up, allowing chemicals to rush into the cells and create an electric signal.
- The auditory nerve carries that signal to the brain, and the brain turns it into a sound we can recognize and understand.
And that’s how you can hear your grandchildren saying, “I love you,” your favourite song, or the neighbour’s dog barking up a storm.
What if my ears aren’t working as well as they should?
It happens. Excessive noise exposure, injury, hypertension, viral infections, wax buildup, genetics, aging and ototoxic drugs can all contribute to hearing loss.
If you’re experiencing any of the following common signs of hearing loss, you should book an appointment with your doctor and a hearing health professional to get it checked out:
- Difficulty following conversations, including phone conversations regardless of the noise level of the environment you’re in
- Trouble locating the source of sounds
- Turning up the TV louder than others in the room feel is necessary
- Experiencing ringing or buzzing in your ears
- Having to ask people to repeat themselves often because it sounds like they’re mumbling
The most important thing to remember is that while hearing loss can be treated (usually with the use of hearing aids), hearing can’t be restored – so don’t wait if you suspect you are having difficulty hearing.
In fact, why wait moment longer to hear what you’ve been missing? Give your ears some love right now by taking advantage of a free comprehensive hearing assessment and a free, 30-day hearing aid trial at a HearingLife clinic near you.
HearingLife forms the largest network of hearing clinics with over 350 network clinics across Canada. Staffed by certified hearing healthcare professionals, HearingLife offers the most advanced hearing aid technology and up-to-date diagnostic equipment, as well as clinical support and exclusive 360-AfterCare. #LoveYourEars and visit HearingLife to book an appointment for your free trial today.