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How does the Sense of Hearing Work?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 23, 2024
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Hearing begins with the ears, which receive sounds and send them to the auditory cortex, near the back of the brain, for processing. The primary instrument for sound gathering in the ear is the eardrum, or tympanic membrane, which separates the outer ear from the middle ear. The eardrum passes along sound vibrations to the ossicles, the three smallest bones in the human body, which then divert it to the fluid-filled, labyrinth-like structure in the inner ear called the cochlea, where the true hearing organs reside. Collectively, the assemblage of sound-processing organs is called the auditory system.

The main auditory sensory organ is the Organ of Corti, named after the Italian anatomist Alfonso Corti, who discovered it in 1851. The Organ of Corti is internal to the cochlea and contains about 15,000 - 20,000 specialized sensory cells, each with a little hair capable of picking up minute vibrations in the cochlear fluid. If destroyed by loud sounds, these hairs never grow back. Different hairs are specialized to detecting sounds at various frequencies, and turn them into nerve signals to be sent to the brain. Also in the cochlea is a triad of fluid-filled loops oriented in the vertical, diagonal, and horizontal directions, which help give people a sense of balance.

Most humans are capable of hearing sounds with a frequency between 20 Hz and 20 kHz, and a volume greater than 5 - 15 decibels. People hear best in the frequency range between 1 kHz and 5 kHz. Some very low frequency sounds cannot be consciously heard, but people tend to get a vague feeling of unease when in their presence. This may be partially responsible for the alleged phenomenon of ghosts.

The upper and lower frequency limits are based partially on the physical size of the cells and organ and partially on cell sensitivity. With the aid of the right scientific instruments, sounds of almost all frequencies and volumes can be recorded.

People's sense of hearing tends to degrade later in life. Hearing aids are the most frequent way of addressing this, though in extreme cases, cochlear implants may be used.

InfoBloom is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov , Writer
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated InfoBloom contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.

Discussion Comments

By geronimo8 — On Apr 02, 2011

My husband used to have to wear big earphones at his job. This was to prevent hearing loss because the job he was doing all day involved very loud noises.

I had always heard that if you were exposed to loud enough sounds, it could result in hearing problems. However, I had no idea that the hearing loss was due to the destruction of a tiny hair, on a tiny cell. That's so weird! I also didn't know that you could lose hearing for some frequencies but keep hearing for others.

Luckily my husband's earphones worked great. I put them on once, and couldn't hear a thing going on around me!

By upnorth31 — On Mar 30, 2011

The whole process of hearing just amazes me! The sound travels through such a complex maze to end up near the back of the brain!

The whole idea is hard for me to wrap my brain around. The thought of sound being heard by the vibration of tiny hairs on cells is so strange to me!

When you think of how you hear things, you naturally think of the ear. But really, the ear, that thing on the side of your head, seems to have very little to do with it! It's just the opening that lets the sounds in!

By anon31676 — On May 10, 2009

The higher frequencies tend to be the most common to be lost. Many people can not hear women's voices as well due to the higher pitch.

Donald W. Bales

Michael Anissimov

Michael Anissimov


Michael Anissimov is a dedicated InfoBloom contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology,...
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