An Ode to the Human Ear

Dear tripartite auditory processing organ (and bestower of balance), aka the human ear

The human ear is a small marvel — home to more than 20,000 hair cells, able to detect sound waves at frequencies of 20 Hz and as high as 20,000 Hz, the site of the body’s hardest bone (the temporal bone) yet still such a fragile structure. It’s easy to take you, and your many complex functions, for granted. However, in my attempt to recreate what you do, to help professionals eliminate the most tedious aspects of transcription and find the meaningful dialogue buried in their recordings, I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for all that you do.

You process sound instantaneously, effortlessly, and because of this, it would seem that interpreting sounds is simple. Yet you’re one of the body’s most elaborate systems.

Sound waves flow into the outer ear, floating along the ear canal until they reach the eardrum. The eardrum starts vibrating, a subtle action that alerts the three bones (the incus, malleus, and stapes) located in the middle ear. The middle ear works like an amp and makes these sounds louder before shooting them off to the cochlea in the inner ear. Fluids inside the cochlea start to ripple, from the vibrations. Then, a wave forms along the basilar membrane, the border between the upper and lower parts of the cochlea. Hair cells along the basilar membrane dance and bend, brushing against surrounding structures and creating electrical signals. Those signals move to the brain, and we hear them as sounds that we can successfully identify.

You know this — the minutiae of how you do your job. But it’s worth recounting because the tiers through which sound travels, and how quickly it does so, are simply breathtaking. Especially as I try to mimic these actions in a digital environment.

For example, it’s amazing how you can listen to two voices simultaneously, differentiate those voices, and understand what they’re saying. It’s a phenomenon known as dichotic listening ability — a task you can complete with ease. I sometimes have trouble identifying who’s speaking, but I’m improving every day by learning from you.

Even when there’s just one speaker, you can process the message and recognize the voice, with seemingly little effort. For me, I’m able to detect a voice, but I find it difficult to recognize that voice even if I’ve heard it more than once. However, you work in tandem with the brain, and its language ability, to establish familiarity and identify who’s speaking within seconds.

And how could I forget the accents? Not only do you possess an intricate system to interpret all types of human voices, but you’ve had a serious head start. You start identifying voices, tones, and accents as soon as you’ve entered the world. Even when you’re still developing, and the brain you’re working with doesn’t have much capability, you’re already hard at work. I pride myself on the number of languages I can recognize (more than 90 now) but sometimes, it’s difficult for me to understand the subtleties between different accents, like French when spoken in France compared to it in Mali.

Lastly, but most certainly not least, you can understand speakers regardless of a noisy surrounding environment. You can separate a voice, hear and understand it, even when in a packed concert in the midst of the encore. The way you do it is just marvelous.

Hearing is incredibly complicated and processing sounds involves great skill, teamwork (with the brain), and speed. You are my unwitting mentor. You are my role model. And your achievements inform my work each and every day.

Thank you for being so incredible, friend.

‚ô• Simon