A Sharp Ear

You have an extraordinary ability to hear your name being called out. It does not matter whether you are in a crowd, a loud place or even falling asleep. If someone takes your name, chances are you will hear and respond. The ability to isolate the sound of your name in a cacophony of noises should surprise you. After all, you were not born pre-programmed to know your name. It could have been Peter, Paul or Wakajawaka (yes, people in Africa have such names). The ability to pick the sound of your name, that your family gave you, is then an acquired skill.

Sound waves travel through the ear canal until they reach the eardrum. The eardrum then passes the vibrations through the ear bone or ossicles into the inner ear. Hair cells then change the waves into electrical signals that are then sent to the brain through the auditory nerve.

The cortex which received the signal has many tonotopic maps of auditory frequencies. Each map represents a frequency just like a radio with low frequencies on one end and high frequencies on the other. Depending on what you are hearing, the relevant part of the brain gets activated. Your temporal lobe then combines the sounds to decipher what it is you are hearing. Imagine you are listening to the Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3, multiple areas of your brain will be activated due to the complexity of the sound being heard.

Loss of hearing can result in a significant loss of emotional well being. Other than damage to your eardrums, the most significant cause of loss of hearing is damage to your brain, which can occur due to misfolded proteins in your brain or plaque. What is truly fascinating is that plaque can be caused by the food you eat. Really, did you say it was just a muffin?


Ritesh is a born again health enthusiast and holds a Certificate in Physiology from Harvard Medical School and a Certificate in Nutrition from Tufts University.

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