Despite what you may think, your ears don't hear anything. They gather the sounds around you, and send this information to your brain. It's your brain that does the hearing.
The ears are also important for balance and coordination.
Your ear has three parts - outer, middle and inner.
Ears and hearing
The outer ear is a flap of cartilage covered by skin. The outer ear funnels sound through the external (outer) ear canal to the middle ear.
The eardrum is a tiny membrane, almost like skin stretched very thin. The eardrum moves backwards and forwards in response to sound waves.
The vibrations of the middle ear cause tiny bones in the middle ear to vibrate. These bones are called the malleus, the incus and the stapes.
The vibrations in the bones of the middle ear cause vibrations in the cochlea, which is spiral-shaped like a snail's shell.
The cochlea transforms sound into nerve impulses. These travel to your brain, which turns the messages in the nerves into what we call hearing.
Other parts of the inner ear send information to your brain about balance, coordination and head position.
Your ears are connected to your nose and throat, which is why infections travel easily between these areas.
Ears and balance
In your inner ear, there is a part known as the vestibular system. This has canals filled with fluid, and the fluid moves in different directions as your head moves. Sensors in your vestibular system tell your brain which way your head is moving.
Tips for healthy hearing
Loud noise can damage your inner ear and lead to irreversible hearing loss.
Damage can follow long-term exposure or a sudden loud noise.
To protect your hearing:
- avoid loud sounds and noise
- protect your ears from loud noises (for example, loud concerts or gunshots) with earplugs or earmuffs
- give your ears intermittent rest from noise
- set the volume on your devices low enough that you can hear people talking to you
Last reviewed: December 2017