Science Interviews


Sat, 13th Oct 2012

How do we tell where sounds are coming from?

Owen Brimijoin, MRC Institute of Hearing Research, Glasgow

Listen Now    Download as mp3 Part 1,2 from the show Listen Up! The Science of Hearing...

Chris -   Pleasure.  Letís go back to Owen because Owen, one of the things that was mentioned when Alan was talking to Soren about hearing aids was this whole concept of binaural hearing, how you compare what the right or left side of the brain is getting from each ear.  You work on this.  How important is this for us when weíre just going about our daily business?

EarOwen -   Itís very important because itís actually one of the few rock solid cues that you have to determine where a sound is coming from.  There are 3 basic ways you can do it, 2 of them do involve comparing the information at the 2 ears.  If you have a sound say, on your right, it will be louder in your right ear, and it will be quieter in your left ear in a small part because itís further away, but mostly because the head is in the way, it creates an acoustic shadow, its said.  And then similarly, it takes longer, it takes longer time for the sound to pass to the further ear and the brain is exquisitely sensitive to these subtle differences in timing.  At the greatest, they're really only about a half a millisecond. 

Chris -   Jonathan Manning has got in touch with a lovely question.  It made me laugh, but then think.  So maybe he deserves some Ig Nobel nomination for this.  He says, "Can people with massive heads locate sounds better or more quickly than people with smaller heads?Ē

Owen -   Right, yes.  Iíd  have to say Ė I've never seen a study entitled, ďSound localisation ability as a function of head sizeĒ but I have to say, yes so if your sensors are further apart, then the cues will be larger.  They'd be exaggerated.

Chris -   What about front to back?

Owen -   Right, thatís where the 3rd cue comes in, the spectral shaping properties of your ear.  Everyoneís got different folds and different ridges in their outer ears and sounds coming from different directions kind of bounce off it in different ways and essentially, give it a different timbre. Just as you could tell the difference between an oboe and a violin playing the same note, so too can you tell the difference between the sound thatís ahead, and behind because it just sounds different.  Thatís a way to kind of get around that problem that sound in front arrives at the 2 ears at the same time, but it also arrives at the ears at the same time if itís directly behind.


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I don't know if the brain has some kind of internal map for judging sound, but after my husband went completely deaf in only one ear from a virus, he has had a really hard time judging where sound comes from and often looks in the totally wrong direction when he hears a noise. In some ways its more frustrating than the over all decrease in volume. Anyway it certainly explains why we have two ears. Wonder what it would be like to have three or four. Lobsters sense vibration with their feet. cheryl j, Sat, 20th Oct 2012

If everyone has different ear designs (I.e. ridges, folds and valleys) much like different finger prints or retina designs, then every brain's auditory function must match the outer ear, being a different program for each person by the billions. This is a feat that can only happen with a master Designer. I am a physicist that can only see the masterful hand of our Designer, his name being JHVH in the old Hebrew. Don, Fri, 4th Dec 2015

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