Hearing depends on a series of complex steps that change sound waves in the air into electrical signals. Our auditory nerve then carries these signals to the brain.
Sound waves enter the outer ear and travel through a narrow passageway called the ear canal, which leads to the eardrum.
The eardrum vibrates from the incoming sound waves and sends these vibrations to three tiny bones in the middle ear. These bones are called the malleus, incus, and stapes.
The bones in the middle ear amplify, or increase, the sound vibrations and send them to the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure filled with fluid, in the inner ear. An elastic partition runs from the beginning to the end of the cochlea, splitting it into an upper and lower part. This partition is called the basilar membrane because it serves as the base, or ground floor, on which key hearing structures sit.
Once the vibrations cause the fluid inside the cochlea to ripple, a traveling wave forms along the basilar membrane. Hair cells—sensory cells sitting on top of the basilar membrane—ride the wave. Hair cells near the wide end of the snail-shaped cochlea detect higher-pitched sounds, such as an infant crying. Those closer to the center detect lower-pitched sounds, such as a large dog barking.
As the hair cells move up and down, microscopic hair-like projections (known as stereocilia) that perch on top of the hair cells bump against an overlying structure and bend. Bending causes pore-like channels, which are at the tips of the stereocilia, to open up. When that happens, chemicals rush into the cells, creating an electrical signal.
The auditory nerve carries this electrical signal to the brain, which turns it into a sound that we recognize and understand.