How much do you know about your sense of hearing?
Well, let’s start with the obvious; it is your sense of hearing that enables you to hear things; for us to translate the sound waves that travel through the air into sounds that your brain can recognize and use to help us to function and communicate.
But just what is hearing?
How does the ear function, and how does this ability impact your daily life?
The human body, it seems, is a finely constructed mechanism with systems and sub-systems all designed to be interdependent so that it can function fully and completely, and the ear is just one of these systems, albeit one that is so finely tuned that it can malfunction fairly easily.
Incredibly well developed, the ears serve two specific purposes; first they help you to translate sound waves into intelligible sounds, but the other and equally important function is that your hearing enables you to keep your balance.
Balance, as you may realize, is incredibly important, especially for an animal (man) that walks on two feet.
So that we can gauge depth and distance and also one’s position, the brain relies on the interpretation of the sound waves given off by objects around it (walls, stairs, other people, cars etc) so you can determine your own particular place in the mix and keep you from falling over and/or running into things.
So how do the ears actually work?
Of course its a help to understand just what sound is and then how it is processed into your knowledge of what a particular sound is.
Sound is what happens when an object makes a noise (or vibrates) within the space assigned to it.
These vibrations cause the molecules of the air around them to vibrate in turn creating and waves of sound (also known as sound waves).
All objects that move create vibrations (and to some extent even stationary objects project sound thanks to their constantly moving electrons, though these sounds are far too subtle for the human ear to pick up on).
The point is that these vibrations are collected by the cup of the ear and moved (or funneled) down into your middle ear where the vibrations hit your eardrum, pass over three tiny bones, and move into the inner ear (aided by tiny vibrating hairs which are really nerve endings.
These are called cilia.
These cilia then change the vibrations into electronic messages that are sent straight into the brain through the auditory nerve.
The brain then interprets the signal.
The brain’s interpretation of the signal occurs on two different levels.
First, it uses the information it receives when we hear interpreting the electronic messages it receives as "sounds" to which it then assigns names (car engine, lawn mower, music, the purr of a cat etc).
The second way that the brain uses the information that it receives from the ears is far more subtle; it uses the information to gauge your body’s position in relation to other moving objects, a skill which can be used to ‘keep your balance’ and also to help you to navigate between and around other moving objects.
Your sense of hearing requires that all of the various parts of this intricate ear network be in good working order and, unfortunately, it doesn’t take a whole lot to damage this intricate organ.
Certain kinds of illnesses, the use and abuse of certain drugs, head traumas and exposure to certain frequencies and decibels of sound can all accumulate to damage your hearing.
Whether this occurs over time or in one sudden and drastic illness or accident, the point remains that within the course of their lives many individuals experience some form of hearing loss.
In fact, as you might suspect, it is the tiny hairs or nerve endings (known as the cilia) which are the most vulnerable relating to damage and hearing loss.
Many things can cause them to malfunction and affect your sense of hearing, but probably the most insidious destructive forces is exposure to noise over a certain decibel level.
Decibels are the gauge of how loud something is.
Different noises have different decibel levels.
For example a person talking at a normal loudness talks at between 50-60 decibels.
Car traffic weighs in at 70 decibels.
The average alarm clock is at 80 decibels, while a lawn mower is just over the “safe” level (90 decibels) at 95, where a rock concert weighs in at 100 and a gunshot comes in at 140.
Without the proper kinds of ear protection (and indeed sometimes even with ear protection) the tiny cilia can be damaged resulting in irrepairable hearing loss.
Once this occurs you can lose your sense of hearing, and there may be nothing that you can do to get it back.
While certain forms of hearing loss are treatable through various medical procedures and technology, permanent loss of your sense of hearing can result in a sever disruption to one’s standard of living, and even though there are a number of resources available to those with hearing loss, it is never as simple for those that have lost their hearing as it is for those whose hearing is still functioning properly.
But how does one lose one’s sense of hearing?
Hearing loss can occur in any number of different ways.
First one can be born without hearing ability.
This is the worst kind of all as it is rarely treatable and oftentimes involves something like a malformed inner ear or being born without a sound processing center in the brain or with a defective auditory nerve.
Another way that hearing loss can occur is when a person is subjected to head traumas, suffers from various illnesses that disrupt the neurological pathways, takes certain kinds of drugs which may also interrupt the electrical signals permanently, or is subjected to loud sounds with the damage occurring either all at once (as can happen when in hearing range of an explosion or gunshot) or over time (as can happen when one listens to too much loud music using ear bud style earphones for too long of a time.
For those who do not have hearing loss, an understanding of just how useful and delicate the sense of hearing is can help them to appreciate what they have and care for their ears so that they will not have to deal without their hearing later on in life.