Often the entire organ is considered the ear, though it may also be considered just the visible portion. In most mammals, the visible ear is a flap of tissue that is also called the pinna (or auricle in humans) and is the first of many steps in hearing. Vertebrates have a pair of ears placed somewhat symmetrically on opposite sides of the head. This arrangement aids in the ability to localize sound sources.
Audition is the scientific name for the sense of sound. Sound is a form of energy that moves through air, water, and other matter, in waves of pressure. Sound is the means of auditory communication, including frog calls, bird songs and spoken language. Although the ear is the vertebrate sense organ that recognizes sound, it is the brain and central nervous system that “hears”. Sound waves are perceived by the brain through the firing of nerve cells in the auditory portion of the central nervous system. The ear changes sound pressure waves from the outside world into a signal of nerve impulses sent to the brain.
The outer part of the ear collects sound. That sound pressure is amplified through the middle portion of the ear and, in land animals, passed from the medium of air into a liquid medium. The change from air to liquid occurs because air surrounds the head and is contained in the ear canal and middle ear, but not in the inner ear. The inner ear is hollow, embedded in the temporal bone, the densest bone of the body. The hollow channels of the inner ear are filled with liquid, and contain a sensory epithelium that is studded with hair cells. The microscopic “hairs” of these cells are structural protein filaments that project out into the fluid. The hair cells are mechanoreceptors that release a chemical neurotransmitter when stimulated. Sound waves moving through fluid push the filaments; if the filaments bend over enough it causes the hair cells to fire. In this way sound waves are transformed into nerve impulses. In vision, the rods and cones of the retina play a similar role with light as the hair cells do with sound. The nerve impulses travel from the left and right ears through the eighth cranial nerve to both sides of the brain stem and up to the portion of the cerebral cortex dedicated to sound. This auditory part of the cerebral cortex is in the temporal lobe.
The part of the ear that is dedicated to sensing balance and position also sends impulses through the eighth cranial nerve, the VIIIth nerve’s Vestibular Portion. Those impulses are sent to the vestibular portion of the central nervous system. The human ear can generally hear sounds with frequencies between 20 Hz and 20 kHz (the audio range). Although the sensation of hearing requires an intact and functioning auditory portion of the central nervous system as well as a working ear, human deafness (extreme insensitivity to sound) most commonly occurs because of abnormalities of the inner ear, rather than the nerves or tracts of the central auditory system.