How do we hear?
Ever wondered how hearing works? It’s important we know how our ears and brain work together to hear, so that we can have a better understanding of how to look after our hearing. If you’re curious about how it all works, then we’ve broken the complicated system of hearing down into six simple steps.
How our hearing works
Step 1: Sound is made of sound waves, which reach the outer ear first, and then travel through the ear canal to the eardrum.
Step 2: The sound waves hit the eardrum, causing it to vibrate. These vibrations are passed on to the middle ear through three tiny bones behind the eardrum.
Step 3: The middle ear is responsible for amplifying and increasing sound waves before they move to the cochlea, in the inner ear. The cochlea is snail shaped and contains 18,000 hair cells that react to sounds based on their frequency.
Step 4: The hair cells in the cochlea move and create electrical energy.
The hair cells are very fragile, and loud noises are known to damage or destroy them. Once the damage is done to them, there’s no way to repair them.
Step 5: The electrical signals created by the cochlea travel to the hearing centre of the brain - the auditory cortex. The signals are then transformed into sensory perceptions.
Did you know?
These auditory nerve pathways are shut down when you sleep.
Step 6: The brain decodes the electrical signals and turns them into information we recognise and understand.
We hope this has given you a new-found appreciation for your hearing. Knowing how hearing works gives you the ability to know how to protect your ears. With this information, you can take action to prevent damage and ensure auditory wellbeing.
For more information on how to protect your hearing at home, check out our app.
What can we hear?
We all know that dogs have incredible hearing - four times better than humans. But how well can humans hear in the first place?
To answer this question, we need to look at the hearing range of the human ear. By ‘hearing range’ we mean the different pitches and levels of loudness humans can listen to comfortably. Pitch is measured in Hertz (Hz) and loudness in decibels (dB).
What is the hearing range of humans?
The average hearing range begins at 20 Hz and ends at 20,000 Hz. However, our hearing is most responsive to sounds between 2000-5000 Hz. Age, occupation and gender influence the range in which we can hear comfortably.
Did you know?
Our hearing sensitivity at high frequencies decreases by 12 kHz as we age.
To find out the frequencies you can hear, take our ear age test.
Hearing range of human ear in decibels:
In terms of decibels, the average person can hear noises beginning at 0dB, and can go up to 165dB. Anything above 85dB is considered dangerous, and prolonged exposure to loud noises can cause damage to the hair cells. If you remember, we discussed why in ‘how do we hear’.
To give you an idea of noise levels in decibels, here are some examples:
0dB - Silence
40 dB - Rain
60dB - A conversation
85 dB - City traffic
90 dB - A busy and noisy restaurant
110 dB - A crying infant
125 dB - A siren
145 dB - Fireworks
We discuss noise levels more in depth in our ‘how loud is too loud’ blog.
What about the hearing range of people with hearing loss?
Those with hearing loss, or damage to their hearing, will have a different hearing range. The upper pitches of the hearing range are more likely to be affected in those experiencing hearing difficulties - so birdsong and certain intonations in speech, can be difficult to hear.
To find out what your specific hearing range is, head to our ear age test. If you’re worried about your hearing, seek advice from a professional.
Need help finding professional help? We have a helpful guide for you.
The most accurate and effective way to learn more about your hearing is to have a hearing test.
We understand that a hearing test can be daunting, so here’s a guide to how hearing tests are done, and what you can expect from your hearing test.
What is a hearing test?
A hearing test is an assessment carried out by an audiologist to determine your ability to hear different sounds.
Why is a hearing test carried out?
A hearing test is carried out to detect and identify whether there are any somatic problems, such as damage to the stereocilia, that are affecting your hearing.
When to get a hearing test?
You’ve probably been told you should get a hearing test if you are experiencing hearing loss or are worried about your hearing. Or, a doctor may refer you to a hearing test if you are having memory problems as well.
Along with the RNID, we encourage adults between the ages of 18 and 40 to have their ears check at least every 3 years. An audiologist will be able to dedicate any changes to your hearing that you may not be able to notice.
We also recommend that if you are aged 60 and above, have hearing loss in the family, or repeated ear infections that you get your ears checked.
How are hearing tests done?
Hearing tests are done at an audiology appointment. During a hearing test you will sit in a soundproof room, wearing a pair of headphones. The audiologist will play sounds through the headphones and you are required to press a button when you can hear the sounds.
Want more information? Here’s more guidance on what happens in a hearing test.
What should I expect from a hearing test?
A hearing test will typically last 15 minutes. Before taking your test, the audiologist will ask you a series of questions. These questions will help the audiologist give a diagnosis.
Are hearing tests free?
Hearing tests are typically free. Various healthcare providers offer patients free examinations, however, you may be required to pay for treatment, such as hearing aids. We advise you to check whether there are any costs before booking a hearing test.
Online hearing tests are free, and a quick and easy way to find out your hearing abilities. If you haven’t already, you can take our quick ear age test to find out your hearing age.
Hearing aids are a great bit of technology that will help reduce the impacts of hearing loss on your life. They won’t fix your hearing, or make it perfect, but they will work to make sounds clearer and louder, so that they are understandable.
There are many people who could benefit from hearing aids, but they are unaware they are available to them, or they’re afraid of the surrounding stigma. In fact, recent research indicates there’s only a 40% uptake of hearing aids from people who would benefit from them.
To help you determine whether you could benefit from hearing aids, we’ve put together a handy, informative guide.
How do hearing aids work?
To understand how hearing aids work, first read ‘how do we hear?’.
A hearing aid works by channelling sound waves through a microphone. A processing chip then analyses the sound waves and adjusts them to a person’s specific needs. The processed sounds are sent to an amplifier, which are passed on to a speaker. This speaker then transmits the sound to the inner ear. The cochlea, in the inner ear, then transforms the sound waves into electrical signals, which are processed by your brain.
What hearing loss requires a hearing aid?
There are varying degrees of hearing loss, some of which can be improved by wearing a hearing aid.
After you’ve had a hearing test, your audiologist will evaluate and determine the degree of your hearing loss. If your hearing falls in the range of 26-70dB (mild to moderate hearing loss,) a hearing aid is likely to be very effective at restoring your hearing ability.
If you’re still unsure about whether hearing aids are good fit for you, we have an audiologist on the eargym team who would be happy to provide you with more information on hearing aids.
The cost of hearing aids
Are hearing aids free?
You will be eligible for a free hearing aid if you are referred to a hearing assessment with an NHS service, and if that service deems a hearing aid crucial.
Some people, with early stages of hearing loss, will still benefit from hearing aids, however, they may not qualify for hearing aids on the NHS. If you’re unable to get hearing aids on the NHS, this by no way means you wouldn’t benefit from wearing them. There are other, affordable options available. For example, there are more and more hearing aids becoming available over the counter.
Are hearing aids free for pensioners?
This all depends on whether you go via the NHS or via private healthcare for your hearing aids. The NHS can provide free hearing aids to patients who have been referred to NHS audiologists via a GP (see above).
Are hearing aids free in Scotland?
As mentioned above, this depends on whether you opt for NHS services or private healthcare.
Are hearing aids waterproof?
Hearing aids are water-resistant, meaning they can get wet. They are designed to withstand daily life, so sweat or rain won’t affect their function.
Do you currently wear a hearing aid? Do you want to improve your hearing? Then download the eargym app and complete activities that will help boost your hearing abilities.
Hearing and age
Although it is common for hearing to worsen as we age, hearing loss can occur at any stage in our lives. This is why it’s vital you look after your hearing now, rather than worry about it later. And, if you do experience hearing difficulties, it’s important you know what to do.
Hearing problems in children
Hearing problems in children can be difficult to identify, but they will have an impact on their ability to develop speech, language and social skills.
Signs your children may be experiencing hearing difficulties:
Difficulty concentrating or inattentiveness
Not responding to their name
Speaking loudly and listens to things at a high volume
Struggling with word pronunciation
Experiencing a change in behaviour, or a change in their progress at school
Hearing problems in children are incredibly unique and highly variable. For some children, they may have difficulty hearing high-pitched sounds, but no difficulty hearing low-pitched sounds, or vice versa. If a child is experiencing hearing difficulties, hearing aids are important as they are made to treat the specific pattern of hearing loss.
If your child is displaying any of these symptoms, then speak to a healthcare professional. They will be able to refer your child for a hearing test.
What are common hearing problems in children?
According to NHS England, hearing loss is affecting around 45,000 to 50,000 children. Additionally, an estimated 840 babies are born with hearing impairment every year.
The most common form of hearing loss in children is known as ‘conductive hearing loss’. This is when sounds are unable to travel from your outer ear to your inner ear, due to obstruction, such as fluid from an ear infection. Conductive hearing loss can be caused by a perforated ear drum or a disorder of the hearing bones.
Other common hearing problems in children include:
Otitis media - an infection of the middle ear that causes inflammation and build up of fluid behind the eardrum. The fluid will prevent the vibrations from the middle ear being passed on to the inner ear. This can cause mild or moderate hearing loss.
Acquired hearing loss - hearing loss caused by disease, condition or injury. Meningitis, measles and chickenpox are known to occasionally cause hearing problems in children.