The ability to locate sound in our environments is an important part of hearing. Localizing sound could be considered similar to the way that we perceive depth in our visual fields. Like the monocular and binocular cues that provided information about depth, the auditory system uses both monaural (one-eared) and binaural (two-eared) cues to localize sound.
Each pinna interacts with incoming sound waves differently, depending on the sound’s source relative to our bodies. This interaction provides a monaural cue that is helpful in locating sounds that occur above or below and in front or behind us. The sound waves received by your two ears from sounds that come from directly above, below, in front, or behind you would be identical; therefore, monaural cues are essential (Grothe, Pecka, & McAlpine, 2010).
Binaural cues, on the other hand, provide information on the location of a sound along a horizontal axis by relying on differences in patterns of vibration of the eardrum between our two ears. If a sound comes from an off-center location, it creates two types of binaural cues: interaural level differences and interaural timing differences. Interaural level difference refers to the fact that a sound coming from the right side of your body is more intense at your right ear than at your left ear because of the attenuation of the sound wave as it passes through your head. Interaural timing difference refers to the small difference in the time at which a given sound wave arrives at each ear (Figure 5.19). Certain brain areas monitor these differences to construct where along a horizontal axis a sound originates (Grothe et al., 2010).
Figure 5.19 Localizing sound involves the use of both monaural and binaural cues. (credit “plane”: modification of work by Max Pfandl)
Deafness is the partial or complete inability to hear. Some people are born without hearing, which is known as congenital deafness. Other people suffer from conductive hearing loss, which is due to a problem delivering sound energy to the cochlea. Causes for conductive hearing loss include blockage of the ear canal, a hole in the tympanic membrane, problems with the ossicles, or fluid in the space between the eardrum and cochlea. Another group of people suffer from sensorineural hearing loss, which
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is the most common form of hearing loss. Sensorineural hearing loss can be caused by many factors, such as aging, head or acoustic trauma, infections and diseases (such as measles or mumps), medications, environmental effects such as noise exposure (noise-induced hearing loss, as shown in Figure 5.20), tumors, and toxins (such as those found in certain solvents and metals).
Figure 5.20 Environmental factors that can lead to sensorineural hearing loss include regular exposure to loud music or construction equipment. (a) Musical performers and (b) construction workers are at risk for this type of hearing loss. (credit a: modification of work by “GillyBerlin_Flickr”/Flickr; credit b: modification of work by Nick Allen)
Given the mechanical nature by which the sound wave stimulus is transmitted from the eardrum through the ossicles to the oval window of the cochlea, some degree of hearing loss is inevitable. With conductive hearing loss, hearing problems are associated with a failure in the vibration of the eardrum and/or movement of the ossicles. These problems are often dealt with through devices like hearing aids that amplify incoming sound waves to make vibration of the eardrum and movement of the ossicles more likely to occur.
When the hearing problem is associated with a failure to transmit neural signals from the cochlea to the brain, it is called sensorineural hearing loss. One disease that results in sensorineural hearing loss is Ménière’s disease. Although not well understood, Ménière’s disease results in a degeneration of inner ear structures that can lead to hearing loss, tinnitus (constant ringing or buzzing), vertigo (a sense of spinning), and an increase in pressure within the inner ear (Semaan & Megerian, 2011). This kind of loss cannot be treated with hearing aids, but some individuals might be candidates for a cochlear implant as a treatment option. Cochlear implants are electronic devices that consist of a microphone, a speech processor, and an electrode array. The device receives incoming sound information and directly stimulates the auditory nerve to transmit information to the brain.
Watch this video about cochlear implant surgeries (http://openstax.org/l/cochlear) to learn more.