A Guide to the Auditory System

The auditory system may be one of the smallest major systems in the body, yet it is one of the most complex. Damage of just one of the tiny bones or organs in the ears can launch someone into the deaf culture quite quickly. Understanding how the ears and auditory process work is the first step in finding cures for deaf people. Scientists continue to study this in an attempt to find a way to cure deafness. While the deaf community waits for a cure, deaf education becomes vital to those struggling with hearing loss.

Three Main Parts of the Auditory System

As those trying to help the deaf community know, the auditory system is composed of three main sections: the outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear. The outer ear is the parts that you can see, as well as the ear canal. The eardrum, or tempanic membrane, is the dividing line between the outer and middle ear. The middle ear contains the ossicles, which are small bones that conduct vibrations to the inner ear. The inner ear contains the cochlea and auditory nerve, which are the primary means of hearing.

The role of the ear is to channel sound vibrations from outside the body into the auditory nerve. The main function of most of the parts of the ear is either to point those vibrations in the right direction or actually carry them to their final destination, the auditory nerve. Deafness can occur when something in the middle or inner ear is damaged, but rarely when something in the outer ear is damaged. The outer portion of the ears of deaf people typically look much like the outer portion of the ears of people who can hear normally. The damage occurs somewhere inside.

How Hearing Works

People in the deaf culture who cannot hear often find themselves wondering how hearing works. The process depends on the transmission of sound waves. Sound waves hit the outer ear and are either reflected or conducted through the ear. Those that are conducted hit the eardrum, driving it inward. This causes the bones in the middle ear to vibrate. The vibrations travel along the bones to the cochlea in the inner ear. The cochlea is filled with fluid, and the fluid transmits the vibrations to the auditory nerve, which then carries them to the brain where the individual interprets it as a sound.

Interestingly, the middle ear can protect the body against loud sounds. Stapedius muscle surrounding the ossicles can tighten and limit the vibration of these bones. Since sounds that are too loud can cause hearing loss and even deafness by damaging the inner ear, this is an important ability. It also shows why older individuals may be more at risk for becoming deaf or losing some hearing, because as they age, they lose the ability to contract these muscles well in response to loud sounds. For this reason, deaf education for the older generation may be an important resource in the future.

Scientists Still Learning

The ear and the auditory system are quite complex, and scientists are still learning more about them as they work to help people in the deaf culture. New discoveries are being made on a regular basis, leading to innovations for deaf people like the cochlear implant. A lack of complete understanding of the workings of the inner ear, specifically, is part of why some deaf people may not be able to get treated for their condition yet. Certain damage or birth defects simply cannot be cured with the current level of knowledge of the way the ear works. That is why deaf education and furthering the deaf community are so important, even while scientists continue to look for a treatments for deafness.