- Draw a picture of the ear, label its key structures and functions, and describe the role they play in hearing.
- Describe the process of transduction in hearing.
Like vision and all the other senses, hearing begins with transduction. Sound waves that are collected by our ears are converted into neural impulses, which are sent to the brain where they are integrated with past experience and interpreted as the sounds we experience. The human ear is sensitive to a wide range of sounds, from the faint tick of a clock in a nearby room to the roar of a rock band at a nightclub, and we have the ability to detect very small variations in sound. However, the ear is particularly sensitive to sounds in the same frequency as the human voice. A mother can pick out her child’s voice from a host of others, and when we pick up the phone, we quickly recognize a familiar voice. In a fraction of a second, our auditory system receives the sound waves, transmits them to the auditory cortex, compares them to stored knowledge of other voices, and identifies the caller.
Just as the eye detects light waves, the ear detects sound waves. Vibrating objects, such as the human vocal cords or guitar strings, cause air molecules to bump into each other and produce sound waves, which travel from their source as peaks and valleys, much like the ripples that expand outward when a stone is tossed into a pond. Unlike light waves, which can travel in a vacuum, sound waves are carried within media such as air, water, or metal, and it is the changes in pressure associated with these media that the ear detects.
As with light waves, we detect both the wavelength and the amplitude of sound waves. The wavelength of the sound wave, known as frequency, is measured in terms of the number of waves that arrive per second and determines our perception of pitch, which is the perceived frequency of a sound. Longer sound waves have lower frequency and produce a lower pitch, whereas shorter waves have higher frequency and a higher pitch.
The amplitude, or height of the sound wave, determines how much energy it contains and is perceived as loudness, or the degree of sound volume. Larger waves are perceived as louder. Loudness is measured using the unit of relative loudness known as the decibel. Zero decibels represent the absolute threshold for human hearing, below which we cannot hear a sound. Each increase in 10 decibels represents a tenfold increase in the loudness of the sound (see Figure 5.18). The sound of a typical conversation of approximately 60 decibels is 1,000 times louder than the sound of a faint whisper around about 30 decibels, whereas the sound of a jackhammer at roughly 130 decibels is 10 billion times louder than the whisper.
Audition begins in the pinna, which is the external and visible part of the ear shaped like a funnel to draw in sound waves and guide them into the auditory canal (see Figure 5.19). At the end of the canal, the sound waves strike the tightly stretched, highly sensitive membrane known as the tympanic membrane (or eardrum), which vibrates with the waves. The resulting vibrations are relayed into the middle ear through three tiny bones, known as the ossicles — the hammer (i.e., malleus), anvil (i.e., incus), and stirrup (i.e., stapes) — to the cochlea, a snail-shaped, liquid-filled tube in the inner ear that contains the cilia. The vibrations cause the oval window, which is the membrane covering the opening of the cochlea, to vibrate, disturbing the fluid inside the cochlea.
The movements of the fluid in the cochlea bend the hair cells of the inner ear in much the same way that a gust of wind bends long grass in a field. The movements of the hair cells trigger nerve impulses in the attached neurons; these are sent to the auditory nerve and onward to the auditory cortex in the brain. The cochlea contains about 16,000 hair cells, each of which holds a bundle of fibres, known as cilia, on its tip. The cilia are so sensitive that they can detect a movement that pushes them the width of a single atom (Corey et al., 2004). To put things in perspective, cilia swaying the width of an atom is equivalent to the tip of the Eiffel Tower swaying half an inch (1.3 cm). Loudness is directly determined by the number of hair cells that are vibrating.
The placement of the hair cells on the basilar membrane is important for the detection of pitch. The cochlea relays information about the specific place in the cochlea that is most activated by the incoming sound. The place theory of hearing proposes that different areas of the cochlea respond to different frequencies. Higher tones excite areas closest to the opening of the cochlea near the oval window. Lower tones excite areas near the narrow tip of the cochlea at the opposite end. Pitch is therefore determined, in part, by the area of the cochlea firing the most frequently.
The second mechanism used to detect pitch involves the rate at which sound waves vibrate the basilar membrane. The frequency theory of hearing proposes that whatever the pitch of a sound wave, nerve impulses of a corresponding frequency will be sent to the auditory nerve. For example, a tone measuring 600 hertz will be transduced into 600 nerve impulses a second. This theory has a problem with high-pitched sounds, however, because the neurons cannot fire fast enough; they are unable to fire more than 1,000 times per second. To reach the necessary speed, the neurons work together in a sort of volley system in which different groups of neurons fire in sequence, allowing us to detect sounds up to about 4000 hertz.
Just as having two eyes in slightly different positions allows us to perceive depth, the fact that the ears are placed on either side of the head enables us to benefit from stereophonic, or three-dimensional, hearing. Accurately identifying and locating the source of a sound is an important survival skill. If a sound occurs on your left side, the left ear will receive the sound slightly sooner than the right ear, and the sound it receives will be more intense, allowing you to quickly determine the location of the sound. Although the distance between our two ears is only about six inches (15.2 cm), and sound waves travel at 750 miles (1,207 km) an hour, the time and intensity differences are easily detected (Middlebrooks & Green, 1991). When a sound is equidistant from both ears, such as when it is directly in front, behind, beneath, or overhead, we have more difficulty pinpointing its location. It is for this reason that dogs, as well as people, tend to cock their heads when trying to pinpoint a sound, so that the ears receive slightly different signals.
In Canada, 40% of adults have at least slight hearing loss in one or both ears, though most are not aware of it (Statistics Canada, 2016). Conductive hearing loss is caused by physical damage to the ear, such as to the eardrums or ossicles, that reduces the ability of the ear to transfer vibrations from the outer ear to the inner ear. Sensorineural hearing loss, which is caused by damage to the cilia or to the auditory nerve, is less common overall but frequently occurs with age (Tennesen, 2007). The cilia are extremely fragile, and by the time we are 65 years old, we will have lost 40% of them, particularly those that respond to high-pitched sounds (Chisolm, Willott, & Lister, 2003).
Prolonged exposure to loud sounds will eventually create sensorineural hearing loss as the cilia are damaged by the noise. People who regularly operate noisy machinery without using appropriate ear protection are at high risk of hearing loss, as are people who listen to loud music on their headphones or who engage in noisy hobbies, such as hunting or motorcycling. Sounds that are 85 decibels or more can cause damage to your hearing, particularly if you are exposed to them repeatedly. Sounds of more than 130 decibels are dangerous even if you are exposed to them infrequently. People who experience tinnitus, which is a ringing or a buzzing sensation, after being exposed to loud sounds have very likely experienced some damage to their cilia. Taking precautions when being exposed to loud sounds is important since cilia do not grow back.
While conductive hearing loss can often be improved through hearing aids that amplify the sound, they are of little help to sensorineural hearing loss. However, if the auditory nerve is still intact, a cochlear implant may be used. A cochlear implant is a device made up of a series of electrodes that are placed inside the cochlea. The device serves to bypass the hair cells by stimulating the auditory nerve cells directly. The latest implants utilize place theory, enabling different spots on the implant to respond to different levels of pitch. The cochlear implant can help children hear who would normally be deaf. If the device is implanted early enough, these children can frequently learn to speak, often as well as children born without hearing loss (Dettman, Pinder, Briggs, Dowell, & Leigh, 2007; Dorman & Wilson, 2004).
- Sound waves vibrating through media such as air, water, or metal are the stimulus energy that is sensed by the ear.
- The hearing system is designed to assess frequency, which is our perception of pitch, and amplitude, which is our perception of loudness.
- Sound waves enter the pinna, which is the outer ear, and are sent to the eardrum via the auditory canal. The resulting vibrations are relayed by the three ossicles, causing the oval window covering the cochlea to vibrate. The vibrations are detected by the cilia, which are hair cells, and sent via the auditory nerve to the auditory cortex.
- Conductive hearing loss is caused by physical damage to the ear or eardrum and may be improved by hearing aids or cochlear implants. Sensorineural hearing loss, caused by damage to the hair cells or auditory nerves in the inner ear, may be produced by prolonged exposure to sounds of more than 85 decibels.
- Given what you have learned about hearing in this section, are you engaging in any activities that might cause long-term hearing loss? If so, how might you change your behaviour to reduce the likelihood of suffering damage?
Figure 5.18. Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Figure 5.19. Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
|140||Painful and dangerous; use hearing protection or avoid||Fireworks, gunshots, custom car stereos (at full volume)|
|130||Painful and dangerous; use hearing protection or avoid||Jackhammers, ambulances|
|120||Uncomfortable; dangerous over 30 seconds||Jet planes (during takeoff)|
|110||Very loud; dangerous over 30 seconds||Concerts, car horns, sporting events|
|100||Very loud; dangerous over 30 seconds||Snowmobiles, MP3 players (at full volume)|
|90||Very loud; dangerous over 30 seconds||Lawnmowers, power tools, blenders, hair dryers|
|85||Over 85 dB for extended periods can cause permanent hearing loss.|
|70||Loud||Traffic, vacuum cleaners|
|60||Moderate||Normal conversation, dishwashers|
Chisolm, T. H., Willott, J. F., & Lister, J. J. (2003). The aging auditory system: Anatomic and physiologic changes and implications for rehabilitation. International Journal of Audiology, 42(Suppl. 2), 2S3–2S10.
Corey, D. P., García-Añoveros, J., Holt, J. R., Kwan, K. Y., Lin, S.-Y., Vollrath, M. A., . . . Zhang, D.-S. (2004). TRPA1 is a candidate for the mechano-sensitive transduction channel of vertebrate hair cells. Nature, 432, 723–730.
Dettman, S. J., Pinder, D., Briggs, R. J. S., Dowell, R. C., & Leigh, J. R. (2007). Communication development in children who receive the cochlear implant younger than 12 months: Risk versus benefits. Ear and Hearing, 28(2, Suppl.), 11S–18S.
Dorman, M. F., & Wilson, B. S. (2004). The design and function of cochlear implants. American Scientist, 92, 436–445.
Middlebrooks, J. C., & Green, D. M. (1991). Sound localization by human listeners. Annual Review of Psychology, 42, 135–159.
Statistics Canada. (2016). Hearing loss of Canadians, 2012 to 2015. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-625-x/2016001/article/14658-eng.htm
Tennesen, M. (2007). Gone today, hear tomorrow. New Scientist, 2594, 42–45.