Skip to main content
Biology LibreTexts

7.3: Hearing and Balance

  • Page ID
    103287
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    Hearing

    Anatomy of Human Ear

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The image shows structures of the outer, middle and inner ear. The outer ear has an auricle and an ear canal in it. The eardrum is in the middle of the outer and middle ear. The middle ear contains a hammer, anvil, and stirrup, and the inner ear has a cochlea, vestibule (not labeled), semicircular canal, and Eustachian tube. Most of the structures of the ear are involved in hearing. Only the semicircular canals are not involved in hearing. Instead, they sense head position, which is used to monitor balance.

    Hearing (audition) is the ability to sense sound waves, and the ear is the organ that senses sound. The large, fleshy structure on the lateral aspect of the head is known as the auricle. Some sources will also refer to this structure as the pinna, though that term is more appropriate for a structure that can be moved, such as the external ear of a cat. The C-shaped curves of the auricle direct sound waves toward the auditory canal. Sound waves enter the ear through the auditory (ear) canal and travel to the tympanum (tympanic membrane, sometimes referred to as the eardrum) (see the diagram of the ear in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). The sound waves strike the tympanum and make it vibrate. The auricle, ear canal, and tympanic membrane are often referred to as the external ear. The vibrations then travel through the three tiny bones (hammer, anvil, and stirrup) of the middle ear, which amplify the vibrations. The middle ear is connected to the pharynx through the Eustachian tube, which helps equilibrate air pressure across the tympanic membrane. The tube is normally closed but will pop open when the muscles of the pharynx contract during swallowing or yawning. From the middle ear, the vibrations pass to the cochlea in the inner ear. The cochlea is a coiled tube filled with liquid. The liquid moves in response to the vibrations, causing tiny hair cells (which are mechanoreceptors) lining the cochlea to bend. In response, the hair cells send nerve impulses to the auditory nerve, which carries the impulses to the brain. The brain interprets the impulses and “tells” us what we are hearing.

    Hearing is important to humans and to other animals for many different interactions. It enables an organism to detect and receive information about danger, such as an approaching predator, and to participate in communal exchanges like those concerning territories or mating. On the other hand, although it is physically linked to the auditory system, the vestibular system of the ear is not involved in hearing. Instead, an animal’s vestibular system detects its own movement, both linear and angular acceleration and deceleration, and balance.

    Sound

    Auditory stimuli are sound waves, which are mechanical pressure waves that move through a medium, such as air or water. As is true for all waves, there are four main characteristics of a sound wave: frequency, wavelength, period, and amplitude. Frequency is the number of waves per unit of time, and in sound is heard as pitch. High-frequency (≥15.000Hz) sounds are higher-pitched (short wavelength) than low-frequency (long wavelengths; ≤100Hz) sounds. Frequency is measured in cycles per second, and for sound, the most commonly used unit is hertz (Hz), or cycles per second. Most humans can perceive sounds with frequencies between 30 and 20,000 Hz. Women are typically better at hearing high frequencies, but everyone’s ability to hear high frequencies decreases with age. Dogs detect up to about 40,000 Hz; cats, 60,000 Hz; bats, 100,000 Hz; and dolphins 150,000 Hz, and American shad (Alosa sapidissima), a fish, can hear 180,000 Hz. Those frequencies above the human range are called ultrasound.

    Amplitude, or the dimension of a wave from peak to trough, in sound is heard as volume and is illustrated in Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\). The sound waves of louder sounds have greater amplitude than those of softer sounds. For sound, volume is measured in decibels (dB). The softest sound that a human can hear is the zero point. Humans speak normally at 60 decibels.

    A graph shows a regularly repeating sine wave that goes gradually up, then down, then up again. The distance between two crests is the wavelength. The amplitude is the height of the wave. On the graph, two waves with different wavelengths but the same amplitude are superimposed on one another.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): For sound waves, wavelength corresponds to pitch. Amplitude of the wave corresponds to volume. The sound wave shown with a dashed line is softer in volume than the sound wave shown with a solid line. (credit: NIH)

    The Ear and Hearing

    Reception of Sound

    In humans and other mammals, sound waves are collected by the external, cartilaginous part of the ear called the auricle (or pinna), then travel through the auditory (ear) canal and cause vibration of the thin diaphragm called the tympanum (tympanic membrane) or eardrum, the innermost part of the outer ear (illustrated in Figures \(\PageIndex{1}\) and \(\PageIndex{3}\)). Interior to the tympanum is the middle ear. The middle ear holds three small bones called the ossicles, which transfer energy from the moving tympanum to the inner ear. The three ossicles are the malleus (also known as the hammer), the incus (the anvil), and stapes (the stirrup). The aptly named stapes looks very much like a stirrup. The three ossicles are unique to mammals, and each plays a role in hearing. The malleus attaches at three points to the interior surface of the tympanic membrane. The incus attaches the malleus to the stapes. In humans, the stapes is not long enough to reach the tympanum. If we did not have the malleus and the incus, then the vibrations of the tympanum would never reach the inner ear. These bones also function to collect force and amplify sounds.

    The illustration shows the parts of the human ear. The visible part of the exterior ear is called the pinna. The ear canal extends inward from the pinna to a circular membrane called the tympanum. On the other side of the tympanum is the Eustachian tube. Inside the Eustachian tube the malleus, which touches the inside of the tympanum, is attached to the incus, which is in turn attached to the horseshoe-shaped stapes. The stapes is attached to the round window, a membrane in the snail shell-shaped cochlea. Another window, called the round window, is located in the wide part of the cochlea. Ring-like semicircular canals extend from the cochlea. The cochlear nerve and vestibular nerve both connect to the cochlea.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Sound travels through the outer ear to the middle ear, which is bounded on its exterior by the tympanic membrane. The middle ear contains three bones called ossicles that transfer the sound wave to the oval window, the exterior boundary of the inner ear. The organ of Corti, which is the organ of sound transduction, lies inside the cochlea. (credit: modification of work by Lars Chittka, Axel Brockmann)

    Processing of Sound

    Vibrating objects, such as vocal cords, create sound waves or pressure waves in the air. When these pressure waves reach the ear, the ear converts this mechanical stimulus (pressure wave) into a nerve impulse (electrical signal) that the brain perceives as sound. The pressure waves strike the tympanum, causing it to vibrate. The mechanical energy from the moving tympanum transmits the vibrations to the three bones of the middle ear. The stapes transmits the vibrations to a thin diaphragm called the oval window, which is the outermost structure of the inner ear. The structures of the inner ear are found in the bony labyrinth, a bony, hollow structure that is the most interior portion of the ear. Here, the energy from the sound wave is transferred from the stapes through the flexible oval window and to the fluid of the cochlea. The vibrations of the oval window create pressure waves in the fluid (perilymph) inside the cochlea. The cochlea is a whorled structure, like the shell of a snail, and it contains receptors for transduction of the mechanical wave into an electrical signal (as illustrated in \(\PageIndex{4}\)). Inside the cochlea, the basilar membrane is a mechanical analyzer that runs the length of the cochlea, curling toward the cochlea’s center.

    The mechanical properties of the basilar membrane change along its length, such that it is thicker, tauter, and narrower at the outside of the whorl (where the cochlea is largest), and thinner, floppier, and broader toward the apex, or center, of the whorl (where the cochlea is smallest). Different regions of the basilar membrane vibrate according to the frequency of the sound wave conducted through the fluid in the cochlea. For these reasons, the fluid-filled cochlea detects different wave frequencies (pitches) at different regions of the membrane. When the sound waves in the cochlear fluid contact the basilar membrane, it flexes back and forth in a wave-like fashion. Above the basilar membrane is the tectorial membrane.

    A series of three illustrations are shown. The top illustration shows a cochlea, which is shaped like a snail shell with two parallel chambers, the upper chamber and the lower chamber, coiling from the outside in. These chambers are separated by a flexible membrane basilar membrane. The oval window covers the inner of these parallel chambers. Sound waves enter here, and travel to the middle, or apex, of the coil. The membrane separating the two chambers gets thinner from the outside in, such that is vibrates at different sound frequencies, about 20,000 hertz on the outside and about 200 hertz on the inside. Sound then travels back out through the lower chamber, and exits through the round window. The middle illustration shows a closer view of a cross-sectional image of the cochlea. A roughly circular shape has a roughly circular bone exterior, with the middle portion of the circle divided into four major areas. Two of these are spaces labeled “upper canal” and “lower canal.” In the middle is the organ of Corti, and extending from the middle out through the outer bone area is the cochlear nerve, which extends from the middle as a thin tube and then bulges into a larger oval shape as it extends through the bone. The bottom illustration is an enlarged image of the organ of Corti. In the view shown, the top section is a flattish pink area called the tectorial membrane. Extending beneath that membrane are three areas with hair-like connectors (stereocilia) that run from the membrane to the outer hair cells. The outer hair cells are shaped like rectangles with rounded corners. From the end of each protrudes a narrow tube: the cochlear nerve. These narrow tubes join to an inner hair cell, which looks similar to the outer hair cells but with its rectangular shape remaining a consistent width instead of narrowing into a nerve. At the bottom of the image, opposite the top tectorial membrane, is a basilar membrane.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): In the human ear, sound waves cause the stapes to press against the oval window. Vibrations travel up the fluid-filled interior of the cochlea. The basilar membrane that lines the cochlea gets continuously thinner toward the apex of the cochlea. Different thicknesses of membrane vibrate in response to different frequencies of sound. Sound waves then exit through the round window. In the cross section of the cochlea (top right figure), note that in addition to the upper canal and lower canal, the cochlea also has a middle canal. The organ of Corti (bottom image) is the site of sound transduction. Movement of stereocilia on hair cells results in an action potential that travels along the auditory nerve.

    The site of transduction of sound from a mechanical wave to a nerve impulse is in the organ of Corti (spiral organ). It is composed of hair cells held in place above the basilar membrane like flowers projecting up from soil, with their exposed short, hair-like stereocilia contacting or embedded in the tectorial membrane above them. The inner hair cells are the primary auditory receptors and exist in a single row, numbering approximately 3,500. The stereocilia from inner hair cells extend into small dimples on the tectorial membrane’s lower surface. The outer hair cells are arranged in three or four rows. They number approximately 12,000, and they function to fine tune incoming sound waves. The longer stereocilia that project from the outer hair cells actually attach to the tectorial membrane. All of the stereocilia are mechanoreceptors, and when bent by vibrations they respond by opening a gated ion channel. As a result, the hair cell membrane is depolarized, and a signal is transmitted to the cochlear nerve. Intensity (volume) of sound is determined by how many hair cells at a particular location are stimulated.

    The hair cells are arranged on the basilar membrane in an orderly way. The basilar membrane vibrates in different regions, according to the frequency of the sound waves impinging on it. Likewise, the hair cells that lay above it are most sensitive to a specific frequency of sound waves. Hair cells can respond to a small range of similar frequencies, but they require stimulation of greater intensity to fire at frequencies outside of their optimal range. The difference in response frequency between adjacent inner hair cells is about 0.2 percent. Compare that to adjacent piano strings, which are about six percent different. Place theory, which is the model for how biologists think pitch detection works in the human ear, states that high frequency sounds selectively vibrate the basilar membrane of the inner ear near the entrance port (the oval window). Lower frequencies travel farther along the membrane before causing appreciable excitation of the membrane. The basic pitch-determining mechanism is based on the location along the membrane where the hair cells are stimulated. The place theory is the first step toward an understanding of pitch perception. Considering the extreme pitch sensitivity of the human ear, it is thought that there must be some auditory “sharpening” mechanism to enhance the pitch resolution.

    When sound waves produce fluid waves inside the cochlea, the basilar membrane flexes, bending the stereocilia that attach to the tectorial membrane. Their bending results in action potentials in the hair cells, and auditory information travels along the neural endings of the bipolar neurons of the hair cells (collectively, the auditory nerve) to the brain. When the hairs bend, they release an excitatory neurotransmitter at a synapse with a sensory neuron, which then conducts action potentials to the central nervous system. The cochlear branch of the vestibulocochlear cranial nerve sends information on hearing. The auditory system is very refined, and there is some modulation or “sharpening” built in. The brain can send signals back to the cochlea, resulting in a change of length in the outer hair cells, sharpening or dampening the hair cells’ response to certain frequencies.

    Higher Processing of Sound

    The inner hair cells are most important for conveying auditory information to the brain. About 90 percent of the afferent neurons carry information from inner hair cells, with each hair cell synapsing with 10 or so neurons. Outer hair cells connect to only 10 percent of the afferent neurons, and each afferent neuron innervates many hair cells. The afferent, bipolar neurons that convey auditory information travel from the cochlea to the medulla, through the pons and midbrain in the brainstem, finally reaching the primary auditory cortex in the temporal lobe.

    The Ear and Balance (Equilibrium)

    Vestibular Information

    Equilibrium, the vestibular sense, also known as the movement, gravity and/or balance sense, allows us to move smoothly, maintain a sense of balance, and sit and stand upright. We are able to maintain our balance while engaged in activities because of this sense. While the vestibular sense helps us with balance while we walk and run, it also helps us stay upright when we sit and stand. Our sense of balance comes from our inner ear communicating with the brain. Together, they help us to have a sense of balance and orient to the space around us. This helps keep you standing up straight and remaining in place.

    The vestibular system detects its own movement. The stimuli associated with the vestibular system are linear acceleration (gravity), angular acceleration and deceleration, and balance. Gravity, acceleration, and deceleration are detected by evaluating the inertia on receptive cells in the vestibular system. Gravity is detected through head position. Angular acceleration and deceleration are expressed through turning or tilting of the head.

    The vestibular system has some similarities with the auditory system. It utilizes hair cells just like the auditory system, but it excites them in different ways. There are five vestibular receptor organs in the inner ear: the utricle, the saccule, and three semicircular canals. Together, they make up what’s known as the vestibular labyrinth that is shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\). The utricle and saccule respond to acceleration in a straight line, such as gravity. The roughly 30,000 hair cells in the utricle and 16,000 hair cells in the saccule lie below a gelatinous layer, with their stereocilia projecting into the gelatin. Embedded in this gelatin are calcium carbonate crystals—like tiny rocks. When the head is tilted, the crystals continue to be pulled straight down by gravity, but the new angle of the head causes the gelatin to shift, thereby bending the stereocilia. The bending of the stereocilia stimulates the neurons, and they signal to the brain that the head is tilted, allowing the maintenance of balance. It is the vestibular branch of the vestibulocochlear cranial nerve that deals with balance.

    This illustration shows the snail shell-shaped cochlea, which widens into the vestibule. Two circular organs, the utricle and the saccule, are located in the vestibule. Three ring-like canals, the horizontal canal, the posterior canal, and the superior canal, extend from the top of the vestibule. Each canal projects in a different direction.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): The structure of the vestibular labyrinth is shown. (credit: modification of work by NIH)

    The fluid-filled semicircular canals are tubular loops set at oblique angles. They are arranged in three spatial planes. The base of each canal has a swelling that contains a cluster of hair cells. The hairs project into a gelatinous cap called the cupula and monitor angular acceleration and deceleration from rotation. They would be stimulated by driving your car around a corner, turning your head, or falling forward. One canal lies horizontally, while the other two lie at about 45 degree angles to the horizontal axis, as illustrated in Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\). When the brain processes input from all three canals together, it can detect angular acceleration or deceleration in three dimensions. When the head turns, the fluid in the canals shifts, thereby bending stereocilia and sending signals to the brain. Upon cessation accelerating or decelerating—or just moving—the movement of the fluid within the canals slows or stops. For example, imagine holding a glass of water. When moving forward, water may splash backwards onto the hand, and when motion has stopped, water may splash forward onto the fingers. While in motion, the water settles in the glass and does not splash. Note that the canals are not sensitive to velocity itself, but to changes in velocity, so moving forward at 60mph with your eyes closed would not give the sensation of movement, but suddenly accelerating or braking would stimulate the receptors.

    This diagram shows how the macula orients itself to allow for equilibrium. The top left panel shows the inner ear. The bottom left panel shows the cellular structure of the macula. In the top right panel, a person’s head is shown in the side view along with the orientation of the macula. In the bottom right panel, a person’s head is shown with the head tilted forward and depicts the orientation of the macula to account for the tilt.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Linear Acceleration Coding by Maculae The maculae are specialized for sensing linear acceleration, such as when gravity acts on the tilting head, or if the head starts moving in a straight line. The difference in inertia between the hair cell stereocilia and the otolithic membrane in which they are embedded leads to a shearing force that causes the stereocilia to bend in the direction of that linear acceleration.

    The left panel of this image shows a person’s head in a still position. Underneath this, the ampullary nerve is shown. The right panel shows a person rotating his head, and the below that, the direction of movement of the cupula is shown.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Rotational Coding by Semicircular Canals Rotational movement of the head is encoded by the hair cells in the base of the semicircular canals. As one of the canals moves in an arc with the head, the internal fluid moves in the opposite direction, causing the cupula and stereocilia to bend. The movement of two canals within a plane results in information about the direction in which the head is moving, and activation of all six canals can give a very precise indication of head movement in three dimensions.

    Higher Processing of Vestibular Information

    Hair cells from the utricle, saccule, and semicircular canals also communicate through bipolar neurons to the cochlear nucleus in the medulla. Cochlear neurons send descending projections to the spinal cord and ascending projections to the pons, thalamus, and cerebellum. Connections to the cerebellum are important for coordinated movements. There are also projections to the temporal cortex, which account for feelings of dizziness; projections to autonomic nervous system areas in the brainstem, which account for motion sickness; and projections to the primary somatosensory cortex, which monitors subjective measurements of the external world and self-movement. People with lesions in the vestibular area of the somatosensory cortex see vertical objects in the world as being tilted. Finally, the vestibular signals project to certain optic muscles to coordinate eye and head movements.

    LINK TO LEARNING

    QR Code representing a URL

    This animation illustrates how the human cochlea, a structure in the inner ear involved in hearing, receives sound in the form of vibrations.

    Section Summary

    Audition is important in animals for territory defense, predation, predator defense, and communal exchanges. The vestibular system, which is not auditory, detects linear acceleration and angular acceleration and deceleration. Both the auditory system and vestibular system use hair cells as their receptors.

    Auditory stimuli are sound waves. The sound wave energy reaches the outer ear (pinna, canal, tympanum), and vibrations of the tympanum send the energy to the middle ear. The middle ear bones shift and the stapes transfers mechanical energy to the oval window of the fluid-filled inner ear cochlea. Once in the cochlea, the energy causes the basilar membrane to flex, thereby bending the stereocilia on receptor hair cells. This activates the receptors, which send their auditory neural signals to the brain.

    The vestibular system has five parts that work together to provide the sense of direction, thus helping to maintain balance. The utricle and saccule measure head orientation: their calcium carbonate crystals shift when the head is tilted, thereby activating hair cells. The semicircular canals work similarly, such that when the head is turned, the fluid in the canals bends stereocilia on hair cells. The vestibular hair cells also send signals to the thalamus and to somatosensory cortex, but also to the cerebellum, the structure above the brainstem that plays a large role in timing and coordination of movement.

    Review

    1. Explain how the structures of the ear collect and amplify sound waves and transform them into nerve impulses.
    2. What role does the ear play in balance? Which structures of the ear are involved in balance?
    3. How might being in a place with less gravity than Earth has (such as Earth’s moon) affect vestibular sensation, and why?
    4. The auditory nerve carries:
      1. Smell information
      2. Taste information
      3. Balance information
      4. Sound information
    5. Cochlear implants can restore hearing in people who have a nonfunctional cochlea. The implant consists of a microphone that picks up sound. A speech processor selects sounds in the range of human speech, and a transmitter converts these sounds to electrical impulses, which are then sent to the auditory nerve. Which of the following types of hearing loss would not be restored by a cochlear implant?
    1. Hearing loss resulting from absence or loss of hair cells in the organ of Corti.
    2. Hearing loss resulting from an abnormal auditory nerve.
    3. Hearing loss resulting from fracture of the cochlea.
    4. Hearing loss resulting from damage to bones of the middle ear.

    6. Auditory hair cells are indirectly anchored to the _____.

    1. basilar membrane
    2. oval window
    3. tectorial membrane
    4. ossicles

    7. Which of the following are found both in the auditory system and the vestibular system?

    1. basilar membrane
    2. hair cells
    3. semicircular canals
    4. ossicles

    Explore More

    Many people experience the dizzying effects of vertigo at some point in their lives. Learn more here:


    7.3: Hearing and Balance is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

    • Was this article helpful?