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I’m sure everyone has wondered at one time or another, why we have the strange shaped objects on the sides of our heads.
The outer flap of the ear, called the pinna, acts as a sound gatherer, similar to a horn. The horn is pointed slightly to the front allowing the ear to gather more sound from what it is facing rather than what is behind. The sounds to our backs are sort of like shadows.
If someone has Alfred E. Neuman size ears, ambient noise behind this person should be more subdued than if their ears were flatter to their head. This is the reason why so many people instinctually cup their hand behind their pinna.
On the other hand, someone with flatter ears can conceivably pick up sound from behind better because of the pinnas being so flat next to the head. This could be considered a plus for monitoring what is coming up behind you.
Another benefit is the distance between our two ears. The distance actually helps you locate the direction of sound. The ridges and folds that most people have on their pinnas alter the frequencies of sounds and also help us better locate the sound.
Each person has a unique sound signature because our ears have different bumps or dents.
Ear lobe shapes, whether attached or low hanging, tend to be genetic. They haven’t been shown to have any acoustical effect. There are many nerves in them, though.
The “swirly” shape of the ear leads sound down into the auditory canal, which acts as an amplifier. Humans have a natural amplification in the 2000 to 4000 Hz range, which is where many consonants are located i.e. k, t, s, f, th.
The area right before the end of the ear canal has many nerve endings in it. It is very sensitive. At the end of the canal, is the tympanic membrane (also called eardrum). It is hypersensitive to sound and vibrates when sound hits it. If it should tear, it has the unusual ability to heal on its own.
The rest of the ear, from the middle ear to the inner ear, is very intricate and specialized. From producing ear wax that protects our ears from dirt and dust, to the tiny hairs in our inner ear that trigger certain nerve impulses to our brain – the human ear is one of the most sophisticated parts of the body.
Robin Jones has been an audiologist at WakeMed since 2014. Having grown up in Virginia, Robin received a Bachelor’s degree in speech communication sciences from James Madison University, followed by her Master’s degree in audiology from University of Southern Mississippi, and her Doctorate in audiology from A.T. Still University of Health Sciences. Read her other blog post here.
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