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Do your ears hang low?

Jun, 12, 2019

Deep dive into the parts of the ear

The human ear. What a funny looking thing it is. Nooks and crannies, crevices, protrusions and cartilage. All these parts of the ear come together, looking different from one head to the next. But do the aesthetics of the ear have any bearing on our acoustic ability? Or any bearing at all? Let’s find out.

A grand design, indeed

Our inner ears are responsible for doing most of the work when it comes to hearing sound. So why the flappy protrusions on each side of our heads? Well, the flaps actually act as funnels, gathering, amplifying and directing sound waves to the ear canal.

Our outer ear (the visible part of the ear) is called the pinna and although a little odd, there is nothing random about its design. Pinnae are built in such a way that they specifically enhance the sounds us humans care about most – namely, the voices of other humans. The twists and folds selectively amplify sounds with a pitch typical for human voices, helping us block out background noise and focus on what matters most. Turns out toddlers aren’t the only ones with selective hearing.

Our pinnae also helps us work out which direction sound is coming from. Sounds from in front and beside us are enhanced, whereas those coming from behind us are reduced. These small variations are exaggerated by the pinna, which aids the brain in determining the location of the sound source. Interestingly, congenital differences amongst the size, shape and positioning of everyone’s outer ears sees the localising of a sound’s source as a skill we each learn from infancy.

The complications of malformations

So if the design of our ears affect the way we hear, what are the ramifications for those with ears at the more extreme ends of the spectrum?

Ear malformations can occur while a baby is developing in utero or be acquired as the result of trauma later in life. According to Children’s National Health System, congenital differences include:

  • Microtia – under-developed outer ear
  • Anotia – missing one or both ears
  • Protruding ears – ‘sticking out’ more than 2cm from head
  • Constricted ears – flattened or rolled outer ears
  • Cryptopia – upper ear underneath skin of scalp
  • Stahl’s ear – pointy top portion of ear
  • Ear tag – additional cartilage bump in front of ear
  • Ear hemangiomas – benign tumours
  • Congenital earlobe deformities – duplicate earlobe or earlobes with skin tags or clefts

While minor ear malformations may not need treatment, more severe cases can lead to frequent ear infections, hearing loss, cosmetic issues and problems affecting nearby cartilage, muscles, nerves and bones. In children, lessened hearing ability can also lead to delays with speech and language development.

Ears, the window to the soul

In Chinese physiognomy, also known as Chinese face reading, pinnae equals personality. It is believed the unique characteristics that shape our ears also reveal our character. So, what exactly are your ears saying about you? Likely good things, according to Vision Times. Here are a few examples:

  • Firm, thick and large ears – fond of sports, robust and rarely ill
  • Chiselled ears – smart and studious, solving problems with intelligence and wisdom
  • Thick, big, pendulous earlobes – good luck with money and health, with a comfortable standard of living
  • Ears lying close to the head – excellent managerial and investment skills, and the money to show for it
  • Wide ‘ear gates’ (ear canal and surrounding area) – gifted, ambitious and able to succeed in any number of fields
  • Ruddy, shiny ears – propensity to realise opportunities that lead to notoriety and fame
  • Ears lighter in colour than face – commands prestige, a leader in their field

Do your ears hang low? Not yet, perhaps

By the age of six months, our eyes have already grown to be two-thirds of their adult size. The same cannot be said for our ears. Rather, it seems the case that our auditory appendages continue to grow and grow, over the span of our lives.

Upon noticing that many old men have big ears, a group of doctors from London set about answering the question ‘Do your ears get bigger as you get older?’ They measured the ears of 200 willing, interested and slightly amused patients over the age of 30, of either sex and of any racial group. They discovered that ears do indeed increase in size, by an average of 0.22mm per year. A negligible amount, you might think, until you multiply it by 50 years and realise your ears will be hanging a whole centimetre lower.

Other research projects returned the same results, yet the reasons why our ears grow over time are still not fully understood. Some scientists do suggest, though, that our ears sag and stretch due to our skin losing elasticity over time.

Our sound wave funnels may change in size, but unfortunately bigger doesn’t always mean better – one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 have hearing loss. If you’re worried about the health of your hearing, booking an appointment for a free hearing test is quick and easy. You wouldn’t want those magnificent ears to go to waste.

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The Amplifon blog is our place to explore ideas and themes of interest. For professional audiology advice, please contact your local clinic for a consultation.

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