Shape of ears affects power of hearing

Click to follow
ACCIDENT VICTIMS find learning to hear properly after their ear shape has been changed by surgery as difficult as learning a second language.

The findings emerged from work by a team of Dutch scientists who (purely in the spirit of experiment) wore mouldings that changed the shape of their ears. They discovered that for up to six weeks they had trouble locating the source of sounds - but that once they adjusted, they could manage both their new and old ear shapes with ease.

"The learning ... resembles more the acquisition of a new language than other forms of sensory adaptation," noted Paul Hofman, who led the research at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

The work, which appears in next month's issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience, shows that our ability to locate the height of a sound source is largely determined by what happens when the sound waves reflect off the ridges and folds of the outer ears, or pinnae.

The brain uses the result to localise sounds, by performing a complex analysis of relative volumes and the balance of various frequencies. And usually, we only have to get used to one set of ears. Perhaps one shouldn't be so dismissive of the devoted Star Trek fans who wear pointed ears in devotion to their Vulcan hero, Mr Spock.

The research does, however, raise some interesting questions. "Whether or not Vulcans hear things differently (or better) than we do is hard to know," said Fred Wightman and Doris Kistler of the University of Wisconsin, in a commentary on the Dutch work. "One wonders how well Leonard Nimoy [who played Mr Spock in Star Trek] can localise sounds when he is using Spock's ears rather than his own."

No doubt it will be the first question on the agenda whenNimoy next appears at a Star Trek convention. He might, of course, choose to cup a hand to his ear and reply: "Pardon?"