How do we Hear and Understand? It Takes More Than 2 Ears

August 2, 2023

You may remember learning about the sense of hearing when you were in elementary school.  But you may not have been told how important your brain is when it comes to listening and understanding. Let’s review what we’ve learned back then.

The outer ear captures soundwaves and transmits them through the external ear canal and then vibrates the eardrum that sends them to three tiny bones (the smallest in the body) in the middle ear. The bones conduct those soundwaves to the inner organ of hearing (cochlea).  Structures and processes in the cochlea turn the soundwaves into an electrical signal. Auditory nerve carries this signal up to the hearing centers in the brain.

Hearing is the perception of sound. It’s typically a very passive process. When we have normal hearing, we don’t have to work very hard to hear.  Listening, on the other hand, is an active process, it takes paying attention to things that are important to us.  Listening and understanding happen in the brain.  In 2011, Audiologists, Drs. Beck and Flexor, wrote an article titled “Listening is Where Hearing Meets Brain….in Children and Adults”. They remind us that dogs have excellent hearing, much better than humans.  However, dogs don’t have the ability to understand like we do, even the smartest ones!

Any time sound can’t reach the brain or is disrupted in some way, we must work harder to listen.  That’s what happens with hearing loss. Conversations become tiresome because the brain is not getting enough information and must work hard to fill in the blanks.  That’s why a common complaint of those with hearing loss is that they can hear but not understand.  When the brain is working overly hard to listen, it can affect its ability to think, remember and reason.

In recent years, multiple research studies have found an association between hearing loss and cognitive decline.  In 2013, Dr. Frank Lin from John’s Hopkins University, was one of the first to publish his findings in this area.  Research continues to learn more about this association and how hearing loss treatment impacts brain health.

To schedule, your baseline hearing test with one of our Hearing Healthcare Providers, contact us today.

Written by
Reviewed by
Dr. Emma Durazzo
Owner & Doctor of Audiology
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With years of experience and continued professional training, Emma Durazzo (formerly Emma McCue) has developed her expertise in a variety of subspecialties within the scope of audiology.