Everything you wanted to know about the outer ear and how it works
The human ear is an amazing tool, it enables us to take sound waves and convert them into something our brain can comprehend. It allows us to listen to other humans and communicate with them.
However, many people don’t understand how the ear works or why it looks the way it does. In fact, there are a lot of people who don’t know the function of the outer ear.
That changes today.
In this article, we are going to be talking you through what the outer ear does, what parts make up the outer ear, and how they work. Keep reading to find out more.
What is the Outer Ear?
Contrary to popular belief, the outer ear is more than just the visible part of the ear we can see on the sides of our heads. It is made up of three parts – the auricle, the ear canal, and the eardrum – together these parts have two functions.
- To capture sounds
- And to direct them into the ear
Let’s take a closer look at what each of these parts does:
The Auricle (also known as the pinna) is the visible part of the ear. In fact, it is the only visible part of the whole ear system. The Auricle can typically be found on either side of the human head. Most humans have two Auricles.
The Auricles are helical in shape and are made up of skin and cartilage.
The Auricle can get damaged without the rest of the hearing system being affected, however, losing the Auricle completely will make it more difficult for someone to hear. Getting ear piercings does not affect the Auricle’s ability to work.
The Auricle is the first step in the hearing process. Its job is to act as a funnel and to direct sound waves into the Auditory Canal and through to the inner ear.
It also prepares the sounds for the pressure difference between the outside world and the inner ear.
Auricles may occasionally collect wax if there is too much in the auditory canal, however, they can be cleaned like any external part of the human body and do not need any other type of special treatment or cleaning.
The Ear Canal (also known as the auditory canal) has one simple job. It has evolved to channel the soundwaves that have been collected by the Auricle through the eardrum and into the inner ear.
The Ear Canal is a 1-3cm wide tube that stretches about 3 inches into the head. They tend to be straight but can vary in appearance from person to person. The Ear Canal itself is not very sensitive, but you should avoid putting anything inside it.
As a self-cleaning system, the Ear Canal produces ear wax. This wax is also used to protect the eardrum (which is incredibly sensitive).
The amount of wax that is produced by the ear canal will depend on the person.
Some people have very dry ears, while some people’s ears produce an excess amount of wax. Usually, the ear canal will regulate how much wax it produces to prevent blockages, but this is not always the case.
Most Canals will curve slightly at the end to make it more difficult for foreign objects like insects to get to the Eardrum.
Wearing in-ear headphones can produce a build-up of excess wax. This can also happen because of a genetic disposition to wax production.
Too much wax can put pressure on the eardrum and cause a lot of pain, it can also be a sign that something is wrong in the ear.
Q-tips should never be used in the ear canal as they do not remove wax, instead, they push it into hard lumps. If you are worried about excess wax then you should talk to your doctor about getting treatment.
Treatment can include wax melting drops and ear syringing.
The Eardrum (also known as the tympanic membrane) is the most sensitive part of the outer ear. It is a membrane that can be found at the end of the ear canal. Once the sound passes through the eardrum it enters the middle ear.
Sound waves are collected by the Auricle, are channeled down the Ear Canal, and then pass through the Eardrum. The Eardrum vibrates as the sound passes through it.
If the Eardrum is damaged it can be very painful and will cause permanent damage and hearing loss to some extent. You should never put anything inside your ear as it can damage your Eardrum.
Ear infections and many illnesses can make your Eardrum more vulnerable to bursting or getting damaged.
What Happens to Sound after it Passes Through the Outer Ear?
Once our outer ear has collected and amplified the sound waves, what happens to them?
When the sound waves hit our Eardrum it starts to vibrate. These vibrations enter the middle ear via the ossicles. The vibrations then move through the ossicles to the cochlea.
The cochlea is full of liquid and the soundwaves make a physical movement (waves) inside the cochlea.
There are groups of hair cells inside the cochlea that are designed to pick up this high frequency or low frequencies sounds.
These hair cells pass the information to the auditory nerves. It is the auditory nerves that pass the information onto our brains.
The brain then uses this information to translate the sounds into something we can recognize and hopefully comprehend.
If the brain does not recognize the sound this may cause other parts of the brain to activate. We may start to feel nervous or confused.
A good example of this is when we hear a language we do not know. We can understand that it is human speech but we can’t translate it or understand what the other person is trying to say.
The majority of the hearing process is not visible, and it takes less than a second to complete.