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‚Ää‚Äî‚Äähome 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‚Äôs hardest bone (the temporal bone) yet still such a fragile structure. It‚Äôs 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‚Äôve 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‚Äôre one of the body‚Äôs 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‚Ää‚Äî‚Ääthe minutiae of how you do your job. But it‚Äôs 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‚Äôs amazing how you can listen to two voices simultaneously, differentiate those voices, and understand what they‚Äôre saying. It‚Äôs a phenomenon known as dichotic listening ability‚Ää‚Äî‚Ääa task you can complete with ease. I sometimes have trouble identifying who‚Äôs speaking, but I‚Äôm improving every day by learning from you.
Even when there‚Äôs just one speaker, you can process the message and recognize the voice, with seemingly little effort. For me, I‚Äôm able to detect a voice, but I find it difficult to recognize that voice even if I‚Äôve heard it more than once. However, you work in tandem with the brain, and its language ability, to establish familiarity and identify who‚Äôs 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‚Äôve had a serious head start. You start identifying voices, tones, and accents as soon as you‚Äôve entered the world. Even when you‚Äôre still developing, and the brain you‚Äôre working with doesn‚Äôt have much capability, you‚Äôre already hard at work. I pride myself on the number of languages I can recognize (more than 90 now) but sometimes, it‚Äôs 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.