How the ear works

Our ears are our organs of hearing and balance – two functions that are closely connected. Some parts of the hearing system are very complex, and the system as a whole is able to tell us important things about the environment around us, and enable us to understand speech. Here are some ways in which our ears and brain interpret sound around us:
  • They help tell us from which direction sounds are coming. This is known as opens a new windowlocalisation.
  • They help distinguish sounds that are important to us from those that are not. This is the reason why background noises such as ticking clocks and humming refrigerators do not usually bother us – our hearing is programmed to filter these out.
  • They tell the pitch (or frequency) of a sound. This allows us to distinguish between high-pitched sounds (such as a child screaming), and low pitched sounds, such as a foghorn.
  • They tell us if a sound is loud or quiet.
  • They tell us what is making the sound. For example, it is easy to tell the difference between the sound of a person talking and the sound of a car engine revving.
  • They tell us if sounds are familiar, from someone/thing we know such as a family member or our own doorbell – or if they are unfamiliar, such as a new sound/stranger talking.
You can now read about these topics . . .
To read about the parts that make up the ear, click here
What is ear wax, and what is it for? Click here to find out more
To read about the vestibular (balance) system, click here
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