The cochlea is by far the most complex part of the ear. Its job is to take the physical vibrations caused by the sound wave and translate them into electrical information the brain can recognize as distinct sound.
The cochlea structure consists of three adjacent tubes separated from each other by sensitive membranes. In reality, these tubes are coiled in the shape of a snail shell, but it’s easier to understand what’s going on if you imagine them stretched out. It’s also clearer if we treat two of the tubes, the scala vestibuli and the scala media, as one chamber. The membrane between these tubes is so thin that sound waves travel as if the tubes weren’t separated at all.
The piston action of the stapes moves the fluid in the cochlea. This causes a vibration wave to travel down the basilar membrane.
The stapes moves back and forth, creating pressure waves in the entire cochlea. The round window membrane separating the cochlea from the middle ear gives the fluid somewhere to go. It moves out when the stapes pushes in and moves in when the stapes pulls out.
The middle membrane, the basilar membrane, is a rigid surface that extends across the length of the cochlea. When the stapes moves in and out, it pushes and pulls on the part of the basilar membrane just below the oval window. This force starts a wave moving along the surface of the membrane. The wave travels something like ripples along the surface of a pond, moving from the oval window down to the other end of the cochlea.
This gives the fibers different resonant frequencies. A specific wave frequency will resonate perfectly with the fibers at a certain point, causing them to vibrate rapidly. This is the same principle that makes tuning forks and kazoos work — a specific pitch will start a tuning fork ringing, and humming in a certain way will cause a kazoo reed to vibrate.
As the wave moves along most of the membrane, it can’t release much energy — the membrane is too tense. But when the wave reaches the fibers with the same resonant frequency, the wave’s energy is suddenly released. Because of the increasing length and decreasing rigidity of the fibers, higher-frequency waves vibrate the fibers closer to the oval window, and lower frequency waves vibrate the fibers at the other end of the membrane.
Higher pitches vibrate the basilar membrane most intensely near the oval window, and lower pitches vibrate the basilar membrane most intensely at a point farther down the cochlea. But how does the brain know where these vibrations occur?
This is the organ of corti’s job. The organ of corti is a structure containing thousands of tiny hair cells. It lies on the surface of the basilar membrane and extends across the length of the cochlea.
Until a wave reaches the fibers with a resonant frequency, it doesn’t move the basilar membrane a whole lot. But when the wave finally does reach the resonant point, the membrane suddenly releases a burst of energy in that area. This energy is strong enough to move the organ of corti hair cells at that point.
When these hair cells are moved, they send an electrical impulse through the cochlear nerve. The cochlear nerve sends these impulses on to the cerebral cortex, where the brain interprets them. The brain determines the pitch of the sound based on the position of the cells sending electrical impulses. Louder sounds release more energy at the resonant point along the membrane and so move a greater number of hair cells in that area. The brain knows a sound is louder because more hair cells are activated in an area.
The cochlea only sends raw data — complex patterns of electrical impulses. The brain is like a central computer, taking this input and making some sense of it all. This is an extraordinarily complex operation, and scientists are still a long way from understanding everything about it.
In fact, hearing in general is still very mysterious to us. The basic concepts at work in human and animal ears are fairly simple, but the specific structures are extremely complex. Scientists are making rapid advancements, however, and they discover new hearing elements every year. It’s astonishing how much is involved in the hearing process, and it’s even more amazing that all these processes take place in such a small area of the body.