We are surrounded by sights, smells and sounds. As babies, our very first instinct is to touch, especially as our fingertips are the most sensitive items we have. Also, we put things in our mouths because that is another of the most sensitive organs we have. But perhaps we can forget that the largest is our very skin. A great many years ago we were covered in hair to keep us warm and we still are, just not as much. But those hairs are sensitive. We may also not recall that as we hear, our ears are sensing air movement in the form of sound waves. I feel sure we were taught at school about the parts of the ear, but not everyone may remember the detail. I know I had to research it, as it has been a while! So, here is a very quick ‘refresher’ science lesson. The anatomy of our hearing or auditory system really is extremely complex but can be broadly divided into two parts, one being called the ‘peripheral’ and the other ‘central’. The peripheral hearing system consists of three parts which are the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear. The outer ear consists of the pinna (also called the auricle), the ear canal and eardrum. This is the visible portion of the outer ear. It collects sound waves and channels them into the ear canal (external auditory meatus), where the sound is amplified. The middle ear is a small, air-filled space containing three tiny bones called the malleus, incus and stapes (also known as the hammer, anvil and stirrup) but which are collectively called the ossicles. The malleus connects to the eardrum linking it to the outer ear and the stapes (which is the smallest bone in the body) connects to the inner ear. This inner ear has both hearing and balance organs. The hearing part of the inner ear is called the cochlea which comes from the Greek word for ‘snail’ because of its very distinctive coiled shape. It contains many thousands of sensory cells and these are called ‘hair cells’. `The cochlea is connected to the central hearing system by the hearing or auditory nerve and is filled with special fluids that are important to the process of hearing. Finally the central hearing system consists of the auditory nerve and an incredibly complex pathway through the brain stem and onward to the auditory cortex of the brain. Just like its anatomy, the physiology of hearing is very complex indeed and is best understood by looking at the role played by each part of our hearing system described above. Sound waves, which are really vibrations in the air around us, are collected by the pinna on each side of our head and are funnelled into the ear canals. The sound waves make the eardrum vibrate and the eardrum is so sensitive to sound vibrations in the ear canal that it can detect even the faintest sound as well as replicating even the most complex of sound vibration patterns. The eardrum vibrations caused by sound waves move the chain of tiny bones (the ossicles – malleus, incus and stapes) in the middle ear transferring the sound vibrations into the cochlea of the inner ear. This happens because the last of the three bones in this chain, the stapes, sits in a membrane-covered window in the bony wall which separates the middle ear from the cochlea of the inner ear. As the stapes vibrates, it makes the fluids in the cochlea move in a wave-like manner, stimulating the microscopically small hair cells. Remarkably, the hair cells in the cochlea are tuned to respond to different sounds based on the pitch or frequency of sounds. High-pitched sounds will stimulate hair cells in the lower part of the cochlea and low-pitched sounds in the upper part of the cochlea. What happens next is even more remarkable because, when each hair cell detects the pitch or frequency of sound to which it is tuned to respond, it generates nerve impulses which travel instantaneously along the auditory nerve. These nerve impulses then follow a complicated pathway in the brainstem before arriving at the hearing centres of the brain, the auditory cortex. This is where the streams of nerve impulses are converted into meaningful sound. All of this happens within a tiny fraction of a second, almost instantaneously after sound waves first enter our ear canals. So it is very true to say that ultimately, we do hear with our brain.
So that’s the science lesson over and done with! But in reality, our brain is also amazing, as it can and does filter out sounds, for example with some folk it it is possible for them to ignore the sound of a ticking clock. I know one of my brothers could not stand that sound when he wanted to sleep. He would sometimes visit Mum & Dad and he would sleep on the bed-settee which was in the lounge – but he had to muffle the sound of the clock with cushions! Other folk though feel comforted by sound and do not like to be in complete silence. There are some sounds which we can find comforting, some like water, others like music. Whatever, it should surely be a quiet, soothing sound. I found that music made a real difference to my driving, as loud and aggressive tones could make me also drive faster and a little more aggressively. It was also far more tiring. I have mentioned my enjoyment of church organ music, my playing a trumpet in a brass band and my singing in various choirs. It is simply rhythmic air movement and yet research has shown that listening to good music can reduce anxiety, blood pressure and pain as well as improve sleep quality, mood, mental alertness and memory. It is certainly something that I have found. Many years ago I was going though difficult times and one lunchtime I was quite near to the cathedral in Peterborough so I went in to pray. I found that an organist was practicing for a recital so I sat in the choir stalls, a place I like to go, and listened. It helped me focus on the future, rather than dwell on the past. Also because most of us have two ears, our brain can detect the direction sound is emanating from. This will also act as a movement detector and working in conjunction with our eyes we can calculate what is causing the sound, as well as the speed of movement. It is what our ancestors were able to put to good use whilst hunting, but not so many of us need to do that these days. Throughout our lives, we are surrounded by sound, but as we get older our capability to hear can deteriorate. I mentioned the other week that a friend of mine has lost some of their high frequency hearing because of working in a few different noisy environments and as a result, if he is in a rather crowded place like a public house and a female with a high-pitched voice tries to talk with him, he has to almost lip-read to fill in the blanks over what he is hearing. I also said about me spending a great many years in a noisy Sales office with a telephone pressed against my left ear and how I am only now beginning to notice a slight drop in performance of that ear. It seems that those microscopically small hair cells in the ear can get damaged and the signals don’t get through to the brain. I also remember my eldest brother saying how the hearing in his left ear deteriorated as a result of him driving buses, where the drivers cab was next to the engine but in those days there was little or no sound insulation. But being such sensitive organs, our hearing system can get damaged. In fact, in older adults hearing loss is said to be the third most common physical condition after arthritis and heart disease. There are far too many variables for me to list here relating to hearing problems, so anyone with a hearing problem should consult their doctor. The one which many folk are likely to have at least be aware of is tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. This is not to be confused with whistling or similar sound in the ears after perhaps attending a noisy pop concert, as that effect will go away in time. But if you hear any buzzing, ringing, roaring, whistling, chirping, hissing or other unexplainable sounds or noise in your ears without any obvious acoustic stimulation, it could be that you have tinnitus.
For me, whether it was from the radio, from my mother singing, from choirs, church bells, sound has always been part of my life. But I am also aware that for many, other senses have had profound effects on them. My eyesight has never been perfect, but that was soon recognised at a very young age and after the necessary tests I was provided with the appropriate glasses. I used to sing in the church choir of St Mary’s in Whittlesey and at that time the vicar there was a really clever man by the name of Revd G.E. Quinion. I mentioned in a blog post last month how he had poor eyesight as he had cataracts, but after he had had a successful eye operation he then saw my father, but did not know who he was until my dad spoke to him as the vicar only knew him previously by his voice. That vicar taught me many things about life, about his approach to it and how to appreciate what we have and with a proper, positive attitude a great many things which at first may appear insurmountable can be overcome with steady perseverance and faith. As I am seeing with a few folk here in this Care Home, it can be very difficult for some to stay positive. I know how easy it could be to almost give up on life, but that should not be how we live. There was someone I knew whose eyesight was so very poor, it meant that their life wasn’t always easy but they seemed to feel that they should not be the one to accept what they had or at least try to overcome their difficulties. They required, they almost demanded the world to change and that everything as well as everyone ought to adapt for them. We know however that the world is not like that and as I said in a blog post last year, had they learned to adjust even a little they might have been able to show others how it is possible to overcome or at least manage difficulties, by keeping a positive outlook on life. Let’s face it, these last eighteen months have not been easy for any of us, just as our parents, our grandparents and all who have gone before us have had their own difficulties to overcome. I have read and seen film of folk who survived wars, who have had physical and mental issues but they continued to live as best they could. It can be harder as we get older, I used to wonder what my grandparents were talking about when they used phrases like “aching bones”, but now I have more of an understanding as my bones ache, especially in damp weather! We can so easily reminisce and there is a lovely song I know sung by Barbra Streisand called ‘The Way We Were’. There it talks about the memories which light the corners of our mind, misty water-coloured memories, scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind, those we gave to one another. But it also does mention that memories may be beautiful and yet what is too painful for us to remember, we simply choose to forget. I have mentioned this previously, how we often cope with bad memories, with pain, which may be mental or physical. As the song says, it is the laughter, the happy times, whenever we remember the way we were. But we are here, in the present, in the now, it is to the future that we should and must be looking towards, each of us doing what we want and can do, planning and achieving. The other day I saw that a Facebook friend had written “Have you done all the things you planned to do on the Bank Holiday? Of course not! Thought so!”, to which I simply had to respond with “Yes. I woke up and was thankful”. It is so easy to spend our time in either a real or proverbial rocking chair, looking back at the way we were, perhaps wondering what might have happened if we had done a few things differently. I know I have. But then reality has, thankfully, stepped in. I am truly thankful for absolutely everything that has happened to me and if they hadn’t then I wouldn’t have the enjoyment of sharing my thoughts, my words and ideas gleaned from the guidance, training and experiences I have had over the years. Long may that continue.
This week, kindly think on this and smile…
It has been suggested that the brains of older people are slow because they know so much. That people do not decline mentally with age, it just takes them longer to recall facts because they have more information stored in their brains. Some scientists believe this also makes you hard of hearing, because all this knowledge puts pressure on the inner ear. Also, older people often go to another room to get something and when they get there, they stand there wondering what they came for. This is not a memory problem, it is quite simply Nature’s way of making older people do more exercise.