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Pathway to the Brain: How Do We Hear Sound?

Written by

Jeanne Graulich
Jeanne Graulich
Jeanne Graulich, MA, CCC-A is an audiologist on staff to guide your hearing aid journey in a safe and practical way. Jeanne brings over 30 years of experience fitting hearing aids, specializing in fittings with adults. Her passion for improving communication and overall quality of life shines through in every interaction.

The hearing mechanism is an amazing system that passes, conducts, transduces and transmits sounds from the environment to our brain in a matter of milliseconds.  Sound waves are collected by the outer ear (pinna) and travel down the ear canal to the eardrum (tympanic membrane).

Pathway to the Brain

The eardrum vibrates, as the sound waves reach it, conducting the sound to the middle ear cavity which houses our three smallest bones:  hammer (malleus), anvil (incus) and stirrup (stapes).  These three bones with tiny muscles attached vibrate against the oval window leading to the inner ear (cochlea). The cochlea is a shell-shaped structure that has channels of fluid inside.  The movement against the oval window initiates a movement of fluid back and forth over tiny hair cells (cilia) housed within, in a highly organized fashion.  The movement of the hair cells generates an electrical potential that is connected to nerve fibers.  The signal travels to the brainstem and then ascends to the auditory cortex housed within the temporal lobe of the brain where the signals are analyzed and interpreted for meaning.

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The hearing mechanism is a complex system that requires a multitude of integral connections.  The outer, middle and inner ear must be intact to function well.

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Frequently Asked Questions:

Q. How far can you hear sound?

Ans: Sound that humans can hear begins at around 20 kilohertz, but goes up to 20 kilohertz. The lowest audible pitch humans can hear is approximately 15 kilohertz. That is, when you’re standing next to a jet engine you won’t hear any sound at all!

Q. Why do we hear sound in silence?

Ans: Our brains have evolved to process sounds and sound waves in a similar way, irrespective of our ears and the frequency of the sound. However, many animals, such as bats, birds, and dolphins, cannot hear during silence. In these animals, sensory information from the ear is processed in a different part of the brain called the brainstem. Our ear might be better adapted to a noisy world where there is a lot of background noise. There, the brain can also process information from our other senses, such as touch, smell, and taste, and use it to figure out the source of the sound.