The Two Parts of Hearing: The Ears and the Brain

Anatomy of the human ear

Curious about how noise vibration turns into sound? While most of us link hearing and listening to our ears, our brain interprets these sounds, whether it’s someone speaking or music playing. Sure, our ears capture the sounds, but it’s the brain that allows us to understand what we’re hearing.

The auditory nerves link our ears and brain, transforming sound waves into nerve impulses that the brain can interpret. This crucial connection and the brain’s processing magic enable these impulses to be converted into cognition and language. Without the brain’s involvement, we might pick up on sound waves, but we wouldn’t be able to recognize or make sense of what we’re hearing.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of why you hear with your brain first so you can learn about the roles the brain plays in receiving, processing, and interpreting sounds, and how analog hearing aids can help if you experience hearing loss.

The Anatomy of Hearing

People with normal hearing have two ears that can pick up and send sound to the brain. Having two ears lets us hear sounds more clearly and with better quality than having just one ear. It also gives us binaural hearing, which helps us figure out where sounds are coming from and tell apart softer and louder sounds.

The human ear is divided into three parts: the outer, middle, and inner ear. Each part has its own set of components that manage how hearing works and how sound waves are moved to the brain.

The Outer Ear

The outer ear, or the part of the ear you can see, is designed to capture sound waves from the environment and guide them inside. The main parts of the outer ear include:

  • Pinna. The pinna is the parts of the ear you can see and touch. It looks like a wing or fin and channels sound into the ear canal while also helping us understand the directionality of the sound.
  • Auditory canal. The auditory canal is the tunnel that connects the outer ear to the inside of the head. It carries sound waves from outside to the eardrum. Sound can be harder to get through if something like earwax blocks this canal, leading to temporary hearing loss.
  • Eardrum. The eardrum, or tympanic membrane, sits at the end of the outer ear and marks the boundary to the middle ear. It’s a thin layer that vibrates when sound waves hit it, passing those vibrations onto the bones in the middle ear.

The Middle Ear

After the eardrum converts sounds into vibrations, these vibrations move on to the ossicles in the middle ear, a trio of tiny bones. These bones amplify the vibrations and then relay them to the inner ear.

When vibrations travel through the ossicles, the Eustachian tube, which links the middle ear to the throat, is essential for balancing air pressure and draining fluid from the ear. This air pressure balance in the middle ear is essential for effectively transferring sound vibrations to the inner ear.

Imbalances in air pressure inside your middle ear can cause mild, temporary hearing loss, which the auditory tube is designed to address naturally. For instance, if you’ve ever felt your ears pop or click while in an airplane, it was your auditory tubes equalizing the pressure due to changes in altitude.

The Inner Ear

The inner ear is the deepest part of the human hearing system and connects the ears and the brain. Two of its main parts are critical to the hearing process:

  • Cochlea. A spiral-shaped organ designed to receive sound vibrations transmitted by the ossicles in the middle ear and convert them to electrical signals.
  • Auditory nerve. The cochlear nerve is the deepest part of the ear and the connection point between the cochlea and the brain. Its role is to transmit the electrical signals produced by the cochlea to the brain, ensuring it receives, processes, and interprets sound.

The inner ear also houses the vestibular system, a group of tiny organs that make up a sensory system for detecting motion, balance, and how we orient ourselves in space.

Although it doesn’t directly affect our hearing ability, it supports our overall sensory experience. For instance, when we hear a sound and instinctively turn our heads or shift our stance, the vestibular system kicks in to help us keep our balance during these movements or adjustments in response to what we sense.

symptom of hearing loss

The Brain’s Role in Hearing

While we need our ears and auditory system to detect sounds, ears are like microphones; they can’t process sounds alone. You hear with your brain and ears combined. This means that if the ears are like microphones, the brain is the computer they are plugged into. The brain is the interface that receives sounds that the ears detect, processes them, and interprets their meaning and context.

There is no single hearing part of the brain; instead, various neural pathways and specific zones within your brain control and process hearing. They decipher specific aspects of sound, such as loudness, intensity, position, pitch, rhythm, and timbre, as well as more complex concepts like language and cognition.

Your brain can perform the following hearing and auditory tasks:

  • Sound localization. The brain can interpret the amount of time it takes for sounds to reach each ear and detect differences in sound intensity between the left and right ear. These time and intensity differences allow the brain to naturally process where sounds are in space, helping us estimate where the sounds come from.
  • Sound identification. The auditory cortex, a specific part of the brain, specializes in sound recognition. It allows us to distinguish whether a specific sound is someone’s voice, music, environmental noise, or another type of noise. It can also determine the emotional content of certain sounds, helping us process context and meanings.
  • Sound filtration. The brain can also filter and differentiate between multiple sounds heard simultaneously, allowing us to focus on one over another. This results in a phenomenon called the cocktail-party effect. Experiencing this effect allows us to distinguish or selectively focus on a particular sound, such as a person’s voice, even when many other sounds surround us.

Cognitive Processes and Hearing

The brain’s role in hearing extends beyond sound detection; it involves complex cognitive processes, including learning and memory, which is critical during human development.

As infants, our brains learn to recognize important sounds, such as a mother’s voice or our name, through selective auditory exposure and cognitive focus. This process shows how directed attention impacts auditory perception, enhancing the ability to listen and recall specific sounds.

Here are some examples to illustrate these concepts:

Selective Hearing

Selective hearing lets us ignore background noises by deliberately concentrating on a specific sound source. This sharpens our capacity to absorb sounds we deem essential or actively pay attention to while diminishing the rest.

For instance, someone engrossed in an activity, like watching a movie or playing a video game, might not notice unrelated noises. This can make it seem like they cannot hear other sounds around them, such as the ping of a phone message or someone else in the room saying their name.

Cognitive Load

A person’s cognitive load is the amount of information the brain can process at any time. Various factors can occupy a person’s mental load, similar to programs loaded into a computer’s memory, including:

  • Engaging in multiple tasks simultaneously
  • Focusing on a demanding or challenging task, especially one that requires thinking, imagination, or other heavy cognitive demands
  • Distractions and auditory clutter which can fill someone’s cognitive load with noise or irrelevant information
  • Stress, anxiety, worries, and intense emotions can consume a person’s cognitive load or force the brain to focus on stressors (like financial burdens, medical issues, or relationship troubles)
  • Fatigue and sleep deprivation can impair cognitive functions and reduce the total available load

When a person reaches or exceeds their maximum load, their ability to process new information or sensory inputs, including sound cues, is reduced. This is generally the result of overload; information overload is an excess of information, whereas sensory overload is an excess of sensory inputs, such as sounds.

For example, a person experiencing sensory overload due to excessive or loud noises (auditory overload) may be less able to detect new or specific sounds. It can also reduce their ability to perform selective hearing or concentrate on a task.

Hearing Impairment and the Brain

Hearing, along with vision, touch, taste, and smell, is a crucial sense. When any of these senses are diminished or do not function correctly, it can impact our cognitive abilities and the processing of that particular sense.

The brain can adapt to long-term or permanent hearing loss, changing its internal structure to alter how it processes sound. This is known as neuroplasticity and can change a person’s sensory perceptions. For example, the brain of a person with hearing loss may restructure itself to allocate more resources to vision or touch.

Hearing impairments are closely linked with cognitive decline, including dementia, due to the “use it or lose it” phenomenon, where under-stimulated brain regions deteriorate. Analog hearing aids, by mimicking natural sound, effectively stimulate auditory pathways, maintaining brain activity and preventing atrophy.

These aids preserve cognitive functions by ensuring the auditory regions remain active, reducing the risk of sensory-related cognitive decline. This makes analog hearing aids vital for engaging the brain and preventing the deterioration associated with unstimulated auditory processing.

Even if hearing is later repaired or partially restored, individuals with long-term hearing loss may have lost some sound-processing functions. They may require more time and conscious effort to process and understand sounds like speech. This may mean they experience more frequent fatigue and mental exhaustion or difficulty remembering facts or concentrating on tasks.

Why Early Detection and Intervention Are Crucial

According to the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), approximately 37.5 million adult Americans have some form of hearing impairment.

While hearing loss can affect people of all age groups, the NIDCD’s research shows that age is one of the most reliable factors in predicting hearing impairments. Individuals in the 50-59 and 60-69 age groups are more likely to develop hearing impairments than all other age groups.

These statistics show that early detection of hearing loss symptoms is vital; the sooner issues are detected, the more effective intervention methods, such as hearing aids, will be. Early intervention can also reduce other associated health risks, such as cognitive decline and dementia.

Enhancing Hearing through Brain Training

Advances in medical research and technology have resulted in the development of various techniques and devices to mitigate the effects of hearing loss. Below are some of the most effective approaches:

Brain Training Exercises

ENTs and other healthcare professionals may recommend exercises to train or retrain a patient’s hearing skills. They promote neuroplasticity, encouraging the brain to adapt to the effects of mild or moderate hearing loss. Examples of effective training programs include:

  • Audio training software. These computer programs and mobile applications can help patients with mild hearing loss retrain their listening skills, speech comprehension, and sound filtering capabilities.
  • Music listening therapy. A 2021 study has shown that music therapy has promising potential as a rehabilitative tool for people with hearing loss. Therapeutic use of music involves exercises such as listening to pieces with various lengths, instruments, and complexity levels. Like audio training apps, they encourage the re-development of sound processing skills.

hearing aid while using smartphone

Hearing Technology

Hearing technology includes any device intended to replace or enhance an individual’s hearing functions through a dedicated device. It includes three types of devices: hearing aids, cochlear implants, and Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs).

  • Hearing aids. These devices are worn in the ears and use analog or digital technology to amplify ambient sounds, compensating for losses in clarity or intensity. Hearing aids are typically designed to be worn like earphones, making them less intrusive and easier to prescribe than other devices.
  • Cochlear implants (CIs). CIs are more advanced hearing devices that must be implanted directly into the inner ear and are connected to externally-worn, behind-the-ear devices. They can mitigate the effects of more severe forms of hearing loss, such as sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL), damaged cochlea, or malfunctioning auditory nerves. However, CIs require a surgical operation and are often more expensive, which can make them less desirable for some patients.
  • Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs). ALDs are hearing devices that can be used independently or with standard hearing aids or CIs. They can filter background noise, amplify sounds, and improve sound quality. Some ALDs have connectivity features, allowing them to connect to your devices and transmit sounds directly, similar to wireless earphones.

Support Your Hearing and Brain Health with Analog Hearing Labs

The brain is the most important organ of the human hearing system. While your ears may help you detect and transmit sounds, you hear with your brain first. Early detection and treatment of hearing loss early will help you protect your hearing and reduce the risk of cognitive decline.

If you are looking for a high-quality hearing aid to preserve your hearing in the highest clarity possible, Analog Hearing Labs can help. Our TrueEQ analog hearing aids offer a crisp, high-clarity alternative to electronic devices, allowing you to hear without digital distortion. Contact us today to learn more.

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