Structure of the Ear

How does the ear work?

When your hearing is working normally, information is being passed through each section of the ear to your brain. Your brain receives these messages and you will naturally respond.

The ear is the organ responsible for hearing and balance. Thanks to its mechanism it makes us receive the sound waves transforming them into proper sounds, making sense to us.

There are three parts of the ear anatomy

The outer ear consists of the pinna, ear canal and eardrum; the middle ear consists of the ossicles (malleus, incus, stapes) and ear drum; the inner ear consists of the cochlea, the auditory (hearing) nerve and the brain

The outer ear

Sound travels in waves travel through a narrow passageway called the ear canal to the ear drum. The outer ear (pinna) ‘catch’ sound waves and direct them through the ear canal to the protected middle ear. These incoming sound waves cause the ear drum to vibrate. This is where the process of understanding these sound waves begins.

The middle ear

Through these vibrations, imagine the skin on a musical drum vibrating when you strike it, causes the ossicles, a tiny chain of bones (malleus, incus, stapes) move in the middle ear.

The middle ear is connected to the back of the nose and throat by the Eustachian tube. This means that when your loved one yawns or swallows, the Eustachian tube can open to equalise the pressure on both sides the eardrum and prevent the membrane from being damaged.  

When you get some cold/flu symptoms the Eustachian tube can become blocked with mucus which can cause a build-up of pressure and temporary hearing impairment or loss as a result.

The inner ear anatomy

The last bone in this process ‘taps on the membrane window of the spiral-shaped cochlea, which encourages the fluids in the cochlea to move and in doing so stimulate tiny hair cells on the inner wall of the cochlea. There are over 15,000 of these hairs and stimulating them to move triggers electrical nerve impulses that are taken to the brain via the auditory nerve. From here, it's up to their brain to decipher those impulses as recognisable sounds. 

The importance of well hearing

Hearing is precious because 40% of the information provided by our senses is of auditory origin. Therefore hygiene is very important when it comes to hearing (keeping our ears clean, dealing with earwax)as hearing allows us to locate the source of a sound. Not only that, It also helps us to situate ourselves in space in relation to a sound source, it allows us to understand the environment around us. In every part of the communication process, hearing acts as a sound filter, and it's also able to work in passive mode when unimportant background noise is present. This allowes us to focus on other things without overburdening our brain. And without noticing it, the hearing triggers the active mode as soon as important information reaches us: speech, car noise, ringing, etc.

Ear wax

Everyone has earwax and it can be common to have a build up making it hard to hear properly. Although this can be easily removed, it can happen time and time again, causing hearing loss or affecting the performance of existing hearing aids.

Hearing and balance

Ears, for instance, do also have another important function aside from hearing: balance. Within the inner ear are three ringed canals containing fluid. The link between hearing and balance is determined by the Posterior, Lateral and Anterior canals in the ear that operate on different planes (think of measuring a box: it has length, depth and width) and the way the fluid in these canals moves around is how the brain helps to establish balance.

The continued movement of these fluids is why people feel dizzy after spinning around, before feeling back to normal once the fluid settles again. Ear infections and medical conditions which reach the ear can also, therefore, affect balance as well as hearing. 

Understading sounds and communicate

Our hearing is above all else our most important senses for communication. It is essential for language learning. Thus, hearing problems in babies and children can have a greater impact on their development. Their faculties of expression and interaction with the world around them can be affected. 

Hearing can decode and reproduce the intonations, rhythms and accentuations of a heard sentence. Each sound, each string of sounds and each variation are as much emotional information for us as they are emotional content communicated by our interlocutor. By analyzing this information, hearing allows us to respond in the most appropriate way using what our auditory system and our brain have learned.

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