Perk up your ears

Human ears make tiny movements indicating the direction of sounds they are listening to, suggesting that humans have retained some ability to perk up their ears the way other animals do.

A baby, a chimpanzee and a dog listen to a recording. Image credit: Adapted from a video by Winthrop Kellogg (CC BY 4.0)

Dogs, cats, monkeys and other animals perk their ears in the direction of sounds they are interested in. Humans and their closest ape relatives, however, appear to have lost this ability. Some humans are able to wiggle their ears, suggesting that some of the brain circuits and muscles that allow automatic ear movements towards sounds are still present. This may be a ‘vestigial feature’, an ability that is maintained even though it no longer serves its original purpose.

Now, Strauss et al. show that vestigial movements of muscles around the ear indicate the direction of sounds a person is paying attention to. In the experiments, human volunteers tried to read a boring text while surprising sounds like a traffic jam, a baby crying, or footsteps played. During this exercise, Strauss et al. recorded the electrical activity in the muscles of their ears to see if they moved in response to the direction the sound came from. In a second set of experiments, the same electrical recordings were made as participants listened to a podcast while a second podcast was playing from a different direction. The individuals’ ears were also recorded using high resolution video.

Both sets of experiments revealed tiny involuntary movements in muscles surrounding the ear closest to the direction of a sound the person is listening to. When the participants tried to listen to one podcast and tune out another, they also made ear ‘perking’ movements in the direction of their preferred podcast.

The results suggest that movements of the vestigial muscles in the human ear indicate the direction of sounds a person is paying attention to. These tiny movements could be used to develop better hearing aids that sense the electrical activity in the ear muscles and amplify sounds the person is trying to focus on, while minimizing other sounds.