Last updated January 11, 2018 at 10:39 am
It’s not uncommon to see someone struggling to hear turn their head and cup their ear towards the source. And, strangely, it usually seems to be the right ear being used. A new study has revealed why it is we favour our right – we hear better through it.
Listening is a complicated task, requiring good hearing ability and processing of the message. Throw in competing outside sounds and the difficulty level increases substantially – now we need to filter out those competing noises and comprehend what we’re trying to hear.
Now, scientists from Alabama have found that in those difficult situations with lots of noise competing for our attention, both children and adults use our right ear more for hearing and understanding the messages being given to us.
Participants in the study were given different sounds in each ear simultaneously. These sounds were a mixture of sentences, words or numbers, and the participants had to either separate the sounds and repeat what they heard through one ear only, or combine them and repeat everything they heard through both ears.
Adults were able to take in and remember the signals coming in both ears… up to a point. When the messages got more complex and they were asked to recall more information, the participants began having better recollection of what they were hearing through their right ear only. The right-ear advantage was on average 8 percent, but for some people it was up to 40 percent.
It had been thought that this right-ear bias was lost around the age of 13, however previous tests had only tested this by playing basic information through each ear. By increasing the complexity of information the researchers showed that adults still have the right-ear advantage. “Conventional research shows that right-ear advantage diminishes around age 13, but our results indicate this is related to the demand of the task. Traditional tests include four-to-six pieces of information,” said Aurora Weaver from Auburn University who was involved in the research.
But why the right ear? Well it seems to be due to the very way our brains are wired. Our ears are connected to the opposite side of our brain, meaning the sounds entering the right ear are processed by the left side of the brain. The left side of the brain also controls speech, language and portions of memory, which makes the pathway more efficient and the auditory information more easily interpreted.
An adult’s auditory system is more developed than a child’s and can discriminate better between information coming through each ear, but when the complexity becomes too much to process that increased efficiency of the right ear-left brain connection comes to the fore.
The researchers hope that this knowledge could help in the design of hearing aids and deafness testing, and could also reveal more about neurogenerative diseases. “Cognitive skills, of course, are subject to decline with advance aging, disease, or trauma,” Weaver said. “Therefore, we need to better understand the impact of cognitive demands on listening.”
So next time you’re struggling to hear someone in a loud bar, remember to cock your right ear towards them. Science says.
The research was presented at the 174th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.
Experimental image courtesy of Sacchinelli, Weaver, Wilson, and Cannon – Auburn University