When it comes to hearing, you probably assume your ears do most of the work. Guess again! In reality, it’s your brain that does the so-called heavy lifting. Your ears still serve an important function (besides being a convenient place to hang jewelry from), but this is one area in which most of the kudos go to the brain.
The Brain & Hearing
It’s likely that few people associate hearing with the brain, but this organ plays a leading role in auditory processing. Knowing how the hearing process works will help you understand this.
The ear consists of three parts – an outer, middle and inner portion.
The outer ear is made up of the pinna (the external portion visible to others) and ear canal. Sound waves enter the ear canal and are funneled to the ear canal.
This is where your middle ear begins. It contains three tiny bones called the ossicles; sound waves vibrate the eardrum, causing movement of these bones.
This sends a signal to the inner ear, which contains the cochlea and semicircular canals.
Fluid in the inner ear moves in response to motion of the ossicles, stimulating tiny sensory hair cells; these convert movement into electrical impulses that are sent to the brain for processing.
The brain translates these signals into recognizable sound. Without its hard work, we would be stuck with meaningless noise rather than coherent messaging.
Auditory Processing Disorders & The Brain
Because the brain is responsible for hearing, it must also take the blame for hearing loss and other auditory processing disorders. Aging, structural abnormalities and damage to the hair cells of the cochlea can cause auditory deprivation.
When this occurs, the ears still function normally, doing their work transmitting electrical signals to the brain, but the brain’s normal ability to process them into recognizable sounds is corrupted.
Tinnitus can also result from changes in the brain associated with hearing loss. Misfiring neurons may cause the perception of sound – the tell-tale ringing (or similar) sensation in the ears so many people with tinnitus experience.
Tinnitus retraining therapy, a treatment that involves listening to patterned musical tones, can help the brain refocus on interpreting sounds, allowing those misfiring neurons to return to their natural state.
If you or a loved one is experiencing hearing loss or tinnitus and looking for solutions, please contact your audiologist today. There are many treatments available to help “straighten out” your brain – often the first step to improving your hearing!