There is a very important, and very complex, connection between the brain and the ears that creates our ability to hear. It depends upon the successful function of many tiny, intricate parts in the ear. It also depends on the successful journey of sound waves traveling through the ear that are converted into signals that the brain can translate. Without the ear-brain connection, we would not be able to recognize, understand or sort through the sounds of daily life. Keeping the brain healthy is essential to protecting its ability to decode sounds so we can understand our environment.
The Ear-Brain Connection
Tiny hair-like features deep in the inner ear, in a structure called the cochlea, react to sound waves by generating chemicals that turn the sounds into electrical signals. The brain receives the signals and translates them into sounds we understand and can identify, like a barking dog, crying baby, or a doorbell. Sounds are received in different ways by the brain which can result in:
- A reflex, like being startled or turning our head toward the noise
- Recognizing there is a sound which alerts us to listen
- Recognizing a sound that we have memorized over the course of time and responding to it appropriately.
Physiologically, sound takes a path through the brain called the “primary auditory pathway”:
- Sound enters the brain through the brain stem where the brain takes note of the duration, frequency and intensity of the noise
- Then it enters an area in the center of the brain, called the thalamus, that tells us whether we need to speak, jump, or take other action in response to the noise
- Sound then travels to the auditory cortex where the brain further processes it and decides whether to memorize it for future action, react to it, or store it
There are also “non-primary auditory pathways” that help us focus on the most important sounds in our environment. For example, if someone is standing in front of you speaking, a radio is playing, and there is traffic noise outside the window, the non-primary auditory pathway is the brain function that helps you focus on the person speaking to you.
These complex brain functions illustrate why it is important to keep the brain healthy in order to protect its role in the hearing function. Here are five healthy habits that will feed your brain to keep it as strong as possible:
- Move more: Increasing exercise, whether it is walking, dancing or going to the gym, will pump more oxygen into the brain and help it function better. Exercise improves the brain’s ability to concentrate. As the cells move more during exercise they become more flexible, called “neuroplasticity”, which means the brain can more easily take in new information and make new connections to learn.
- Breathe more: Studies have shown that concentrating on one’s breathing, like one would do during meditation and yoga, has enormous benefits for the brain. Learning to control one’s breathing can reduce stress and improve concentration.
- Eat more colors: The more colorful foods you eat, the more brain healthy foods will be in your diet. For example, these foods are great for brain health:
- Blueberries: They protect the brain from free-radicals (atoms that can damage cells)
- Oranges: They contain glucose, healthy sugar for the brain
- Fish: They are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids that the brain loves for high function
- Avocados: They are healthy for your heart, and when arteries in the heart are clear, that promotes healthy blood flow to the brain
- Nuts and seeds: Both are full of the antioxidant vitamin E which can improve brain function
- Dance more: Harvard Medical School reports that dance is so beneficial for the brain that it is being used to treat Parkinson’s Disease, a degenerative nerve disease. The school says that dance has many benefits that range from “memory improvement to strengthened neuronal (nerve) connections.”
- Watch your blood pressure: The circulatory system keeps the body healthy and that includes the brain. Keeping blood pressure at a healthy level helps to keep oxygen flowing freely to the brain.
These steps can help to keep the brain healthy and functioning as highly as possible, and that includes processing sounds for strong hearing. Doing everything possible to keep the brain strong benefits other parts of the body, as well; healthy diets keep the heart strong and exercise keeps the joints and muscles moving. Keeping the brain healthy maintains healthy hearing as well as a healthy body and mind.