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The Physics of Hearing

Saadia Humayun BO-09 The sound as we hear it is just mechanical vibrations. The ear converts these vibrations into electrical signals to be decoded by higher centers in the brain. The complex circuitry of this sensory organ can be analyzed by separating it into three parts located strategically and working in sync with each other- outer ear, middle ear and inner ear, all engineered at best for an efficient sound delivery and perception. The outer ear comprises of pinna and external auditory canal which stretches up to 2.5 cm. The middle ear is an air-filled cavity in the temporal bone of the skull. Its main mechanical components are the ossicles (small bones) and they are the hammer (malleus), the anvil (incus) and the stirrup (stapes). The middle ear is bounded by the ear drum or tympanum on the outside and its inner boundaries include the oval window and the round window. There is also a connection, through the round window to the Eustachian tube that connects the middle ear with pharynx and this important in equalizing pressure between the middle and outer ear. Also, this tube is mutually shared by the ear, nose and throat (ENT). Further up comes the inner ear which is a multi-chambered cavity also located in the temporal bone. It consists of several parts including the cochlea, the saccule, the utricle and the semicircular canals. The utricle and the semicircular canals are associated with maintaining balance and position. To understand the role this biological transducer plays in hearing, a basic grasp on the sound waves is necessary. Sound waves are periodic compressions of air, water and other media particles or just pressure waves that travel in all directions from their source. They are characterized by the generic properties of waves like frequency, wavelength, speed and intensity. Any vibrating object sends a wave of pressure fluctuation through the atmosphere and the occurrences of these fluctuations per unit time is the frequency of sound waves. The reason the brain perceives different sounds from different vibrating objects is because of variations in the sound wave frequency. The dynamic range of human hearing is 20-20,000 Hz. The pressure fluctuations associated with incoming sound waves are rather small and need to be amplified in order to be processed or heard. The outer ear collects sound signals and also serves as a resonator along with protecting the tympanic membrane. Since the ear canal can be approximated to a tube with one end closed and the other open, it would have a fundamental resonance four times the length of the canal- which would be 10 cm, corresponding to a frequency of 3430 Hz if (~3 kHz) the sound in air is considered to be 343 m/s. In fact the human ear is most sensitive to sounds with frequencies that fall within the range of 2-4 kHz. The middle ear serves a core function, which is the amplification of pressure waves to make the impedance of the air-filled external auditory tube in sync with the fluid-filled cochlea, so as to

effectively transmit sounds ahead. Acoustic impedance (Z) of a medium is a material property which determines the size of reflection of the acoustic energy on a boundary with different acoustic impedance. If there is no impedance matching, then signal strength would be lost and roughly just 2% of sound intensity would reach the inner ear. Middle ear compensates for this loss by switching on its mechanical pressure amplification system. This amplification is brought about by two mechanisms: 1- By the lever action of the ossicles which have a mechanical advantage of 2. The mechanical vibrations collected by the outer ear make the tympanum vibrate. The malleus, which is in close proximity with the ear drum, transmits this response with a 30% greater force to the oval window via the stapes. 2- In addition, nature has conveniently made a 17-fold reduction in the area of the oval window to that of the tympanic membrane which aids in converging the sound waves and enhancing their intensity. Intensity of sound waves has been defined as the energy which passes through a unit area perpendicular to the direction of propagation per unit time.

Therefore, by reducing the area of the oval window, intensity of sound waves is increased and the impedance is matched, the purpose of which is to maximize the power transfer from the air in the external canal which is light and compliant, to the fluid in the inner ear, which is heavy and dense. The ratio of the pressure at the oval window to that at the tympanum is given by:

The middle ear effectively increases the pressure to a factor of 22 and converts high amplitude and small pressure signals to low amplitude and high pressure sound signals, relaying maximum power to the fluid in the cochlea. If it were not for this impedance matching system, most of the sound waves would just reflect back out of the ear. The inner ear performs the function of two sensory modalities- audition and equilibrium. Its main component, the cochlea, which is a fluid-filled snail-shaped cavity with a total length of about 35 mm serves as a basic transducer for converting mechanical signals to electrical ones that are then sent to the auditory areas of the cerebral cortex via vestibule-cochlear tract. The vibrations at the oval window generate waves that travel inwards towards the cochlea which is divided into three chambers- the two outer chambers, scala vestibuli and scala tympani. The fluid in the scalae is called the endolymph. Sandwiched between the two scalae is the cochlear duct and membrane separating the cochlear duct from scala tympani is called the basilar membrane and its motion, induced by the incoming sound waves plays a major role in engendering nerve impulses. The organ of corti resides on the basilar membrane and it takes this transformation feat to completion when its hair cells or sound receptors are stimulated by the movement of the stirrups. It is the dance of the cilia on hair cells that make these receptors rapidly fire coded

information about the sound pitch, intensity, direction and duration and after several relays within the cortex the individual becomes aware of the many sounds that surround him in this high-decibel paced environment. Even though the hearing system has been studied in a greater detail than other sensory systems, still not much is known of the processes that go on inside the dark chambers of this sensory labyrinth. Numbers may explain the apparent perception of sound but they fall short when it comes to more intense phenomenon like hallucinations- seeing and hearing things that apparently do not exist. This may be due to traumatic or psychological conditions, but what exactly is going on inside the persons brain that he hears things the rest of the people do not? Whats with the apparently non-existent mechanical vibrations that only he is able to perceive?

Figure 1 The anatomy of Human ear Diagram taken from Clinical Audiology: an introduction, Brad A. Stach- 2008

Newman, Jay. Physics of Life Sciences. Springer 2008 Srivastava, P. K. Elementary Biophysics: An Introduction. Narosa Publishing House, 2006. Tuszynski, Jack A. Molecular and Cellular Biophysics. Chapman & Hall/CRC, 2007 Pattabhi, V and Gautham, N. Biophysics. Narosa Publishing House, 2009 Stach, Brad A. Clinical Audiology: an introduction. Cengage Learning, 2008 Bhatnagar, Subnash. Neuroscience for the study of communicative disorders. Wolters Kluwer, 2002