How the ear processes sound
Of our five senses, our ability to hear may perhaps be the best for enjoying life as a human. Here’s how we’re able to hear everything from birds chirping to ocean waves lapping a beach.
Hearing starts with sound waves entering our outer ears and traveling through a passageway known as the ear canal, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. The canal connects to the eardrum, which is vibrated by sound waves. The eardrum transfers these vibrations to the middle ear.
Depending on how high or how low the pitch of the sound is determines how much the eardrum will move and how the malleus, incus and stapes bones move. This section of the ear is known as the middle ear, reports the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. The movement of these bones sends another signal to the inner ear.
The magic of hearing happens in the inner ear and the cochlea. ASHA defines the cochlea as “bony and looks like a snail. It has fluid and hair cells inside of it.”
The cochlea moves with the bones in the middle ear, creating electrical signals. They’re sent to the auditory nerve in the brain, which then deciphers what the sounds are and how you should respond.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the average person has about 16,000 hair cells in the cochlea when they’re born. Humans can have 30% to 50% of the hair cells damaged before an audiologist can measure hearing loss. Generally, many hair cells are destroyed beyond repair by the time one notices he or she has hearing loss, reports the CDC.
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