“Odyssey of the Ear”: A Beautiful Animation Shows How Sounds Travel Into Our Ears and Become Thoughts in Our Brain

As all school­child­ren know, we hear with our ears. And as all school­child­ren also prob­a­bly know, we hear with our brains — or if they don’t know it, at least they must sus­pect it, giv­en the way sounds around us seem to turn with­out effort into thoughts in our heads. But how? It’s the inter­face between ear and brain where things get more com­pli­cat­ed, but “Odyssey of the Ear,” the six-minute video above, makes it much clear­er just how sound gets through our ears and into our brains. Suit­able for view­ers of near­ly any age, it com­bines sil­hou­ette ani­ma­tion (of the kind pio­neered by Lotte Reiniger) with live action, pro­jec­tion, and even dance.

Accord­ing to the video, which was orig­i­nal­ly pro­duced as part of Har­vardX’s Fun­da­men­tals of Neu­ro­science course, the process works some­thing like this. Our out­er ear col­lects sounds from our envi­ron­ment when things vibrate in the phys­i­cal world, pro­duc­ing vari­a­tions in air pres­sure, or “sound waves” that pass through the air.

The sound waves enter the ear and pass down through the audi­to­ry canal, at the end of which they hit the ear drum. The ear drum trans­fers the vibra­tions of the sound waves to a “series of lit­tle bones,” three of them, called the ossi­cles, or “ham­mer, anvil, and stir­rup.” These trans­mit the sounds to the flu­id-filled inner ear through a mem­brane called the “oval win­dow.”

Inside the inner ear is the snail-shaped organ known as the cochlea, and inside the cochlea is the organ of cor­ti, and inside the organ of cor­ti are “thou­sands of audi­to­ry hair cells,” actu­al­ly recep­tor neu­rons called stere­ocil­ia, that “con­vert the motion ener­gy of sound waves into elec­tri­cal sig­nals that are com­mu­ni­cat­ed to the audi­to­ry nerve.” From there, “the sig­nal goes into struc­tures deep­er in the brain, until at last it reach­es the audi­to­ry cor­tex, where we con­scious­ly expe­ri­ence sound.” That con­scious expe­ri­ence of sound may make it feel as if we imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nize and con­sid­er all the nois­es, voic­es, or music we hear, but as “Odyssey of the Ear” reveals, sound waves have to make quite an epic jour­ney before they reach our brains at all. At that point the waves them­selves may have dis­si­pat­ed, but they live on in our con­scious­ness. In oth­er words, “the brain has tak­en what was out­side and made it inside.”

via The Kids Should See This

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Eve­lyn Glen­nie (a Musi­cian Who Hap­pens to Be Deaf) Shows How We Can Lis­ten to Music with Our Entire Bod­ies

How Did Beethoven Com­pose His 9th Sym­pho­ny After He Went Com­plete­ly Deaf?

The Neu­ro­science of Bass: New Study Explains Why Bass Instru­ments Are Fun­da­men­tal to Music

The British Library’s “Sounds” Archive Presents 80,000 Free Audio Record­ings: World & Clas­si­cal Music, Inter­views, Nature Sounds & More

Feel Strange­ly Nos­tal­gic as You Hear Clas­sic Songs Reworked to Sound as If They’re Play­ing in an Emp­ty Shop­ping Mall: David Bowie, Toto, Ah-ha & More

The Vin­cent Van Gogh Action Fig­ure, Com­plete with Detach­able Ear

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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