At one point in our lives most people like to listen to music at very high levels. Movie theaters these days all seem to play the soundtrack to the movie you watch at high volumes. Sometimes it can be deafening – literally. Doctors have warned that prolonged use of earphones connected to our cell phones when listening to music at high volume levels can cause hearing loss. To those of you who have never experienced hearing loss and take it for granted that you will always be able to hear what you are listening to, take note: stop, the hearing you save may be your own.
I’ve always tried to take good care of my hearing. I never had my music turned up so loud it sounded distorted or was painful. I prefer the sonic midrange and never had the bass or treble up too high in relation to it. Same with my guitar amp – I never really played at full volume because I lived in small spaces so my ears never got that bludgeoning that others have and with a half-stack your ears are above the speakers and not in front of them. Despite that, I’ve known for a few years now that the hearing in my left ear is a little better than in my right ear. This surprised me because when I was younger and used to crank the stereo in my car, the speakers on the driver’s side were closest to my left ear, not my right. Anyway, the difference wasn’t a big one but it was noticeable. I was able to live with it because it was just a small difference and didn’t really affect the way I did things like listen to music or watch TV. Recently though, I got a taste (and a shock) of what it’s like to lose your hearing and believe me, it’s not something you want to live with permanently.
I took a vacation this past summer, like I usually do. My family and I would rent a place by the beach where we would spend days out on the deck, crabbing or watching the boats and the wildlife going by. We would take short trips to the beach and hang out all day watching the people with their kids and pets as they frolicked on the beach with the waves crashing on the surf – each bringing their own unique sights and sounds with them. At night I’d either do a little surf fishing or hang out on the deck of our rented house until it was time for bed. I went to bed one night, early in our vacation and I usually slept with an ear plug in one ear to help me drift off to sleep. I noticed it hurt a little bit when I put the plug in so I tried it again and ouch! I had never had an ear infection before so I wasn’t quite sure if I had one. I put the plug back in but not as far as I usually did and that seemed to work. The next morning however, my ear really hurt. I lived with it the next few days and stopped using the ear plug. I got back from vacation and the ear was still bothering me. I figured I had swimmer’s ear from swimming in the ocean although I only swam one day. I thought: “could that have been the cause?” I’ve always swam at the beach, gotten water in my ears a few times and eventually it would clear itself within a day or two. I figured this time it would do the same thing, only it didn’t! So the first thing I did is what I imagine most of you would do in the same circumstances – I went to the store and got a remedy for swimmer’s ear. I followed the directions and put a few drops in and thought in a day or two the water would clear itself like it always did and I would be fine, only it didn’t work. I then thought: “maybe I’ve got ear wax built up in my ear” so I went back to the store and got a remedy for ear wax removal. Mind you, I did some research as to what was really in these products and most of them are just alcohol or peroxide – stuff you normally have around the house anyway so in most cases you don’t need to go out and spend the money on something you already have that is just repackaged and sold to you. Anyway, I tried both of these remedies for a few days and nothing worked so now I knew; I had a real ear infection. What scared me though was how it affected my hearing. In the shower, when the water ran over my head it was as if a heavy rain was beating down on my roof, only the roof was my head. My Bluetooth earpiece was basically useless – I had to turn my phone up to almost full volume to hear anything at all out of it or put it in my other ear when taking phone calls. When trying to listen to music I could only hear half of the music in my car and so stereo was now mono. I knew the functioning of my ear was still intact because if I turned up the volume on my phone to full it was still painful to listen to even though it was hard to hear (if that makes any sense) so I’d have to turn the volume down but if I turned it down to avoid the pain I could hear almost nothing! Trying to play guitar was even worse. If you’re right-handed your right ear is closest to the strings so even trying to tune your guitar was a challenge. And playing through an amp? This was frustrating as well because if I didn’t turn my head to the side where I had a functional ear all I heard was a muffled mess. Imagine playing your guitar and all you hear is bass – it was a nightmare. I tried different things to figure out what was wrong. If I touched something to my ear canal like a Q-tip the sensation was still there but inside it felt like it was being blocked by fluid or something else – it made no sense, like there was still water in my ear even though there was none. The lack of hearing in one ear also affected the way I heard things. I’ve often heard how people who have lost an eye also lose their depth perception; that second eye helps differentiate what you see so you can tell how close something is and where it is in relation to all that you are looking at. Well let me tell you, the loss of hearing in one ear affects your depth perception as well. Try this simple test: take your finger and press the small, rounded part of your ear directly in front of your ear canal inward so that it blocks your right or left ear canal. Now, try and listen to the normal sounds around you. In fact, go outside and listen, with your one ear still blocked and try to determine where the sound is coming from. Unless the sound is coming from the side that isn’t blocked, you probably won’t be able to tell what direction it’s coming from. If it’s coming from the front or the side that is blocked, you will probably have trouble finding its location. Now, turn to face the source of the sound with the ear that is blocked. You may not be able to hear it at all. Your outer ears are like little radar dishes that capture sound and direct it into your ear canal but they’re unidirectional, meaning they only take input from one direction. Your brain depends on the sound coming from both ears to triangulate where the sound is coming from. If the sound is coming from the front, theoretically your ears should hear approximately the same level of sound so your brain tells you where the sound is coming from. Unlike a dog, whose ear can instantly change direction to locate the source of a sound, if one ear canal is blocked or the sound coming in to the ear drum is not getting to the inner ear, your hearing and your sense of direction will be diminished. Is this a little bit scary to you? It definitely was for me. Not knowing what direction a sound was coming from was very confusing to me, and frightening. Imagine only being able to hear out of one ear, permanently. You hear a sound and don’t know where it’s coming from or someone is talking to you and they are on the side that you can’t hear out of. You will constantly be saying “what?” like those older people you saw in old movies and cartoons, or you will become a master lip reader to try and hide it. Can you imagine having to ask people to speak into your “good” ear so you can hear what they say or having to walk next to someone but always having to be on the side that you can hear out of? It’s an instant reality check. I went through this ordeal for two months – living with it while I tried to get a doctor’s appointment to get it looked at and by the time I finally did, my hearing had started to improve. Slowly, a day at a time, my hearing in that ear began to come back. I can’t tell you how relieved I was. I could lie down on the couch and watch TV and not have to make sure my “good” ear was exposed so I could hear what I was watching. I could tune and play my guitar and actually hear it while facing the amp. I didn’t have to switch my Bluetooth earpiece to my other ear so I could talk on my cell phone with it. I didn’t have to keep asking “what?” when someone on my right side asked me a question, making them repeat it which after a while got annoying for them, I’m sure.
Hearing is something we all take for granted, like a lot of things, until something goes wrong. Take care of your hearing: wear ear plugs in the water or at concerts, turn your TV/stereo/amp down to listenable levels, and don’t turn up your earphones too high. We all love to live in the moment, just make sure you can enjoy all the moments that are to come.
Lars Chittka; Axel Brockmann – Perception Space—The Final Frontier, A PLoS Biology Vol. 3, No. 4, e137 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030137 (Fig. 1A/Large version), vectorised by Inductiveload
A diagram of the anatomy of the human ear.