Auditory Experiments Suggest the Right Ear Is the Better Listener

Research from Auburn University reveals that the right ear is better than the left ear at listening in crowded environments.

Here's a question for your next conversational lull: Are humans left-eared or right-eared?

We're all pretty much right-eared, according to new research presented this week at the annual Acoustical Society of America conference in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Audiology researchers at Auburn University in Alabama  have found that adults tend to better comprehend and retain information that comes through the right ear, especially when operating in loud or crowded environments. While previous research had established that right-ear dominance is present in children, the new research suggests that favoring the right ear continues into adulthood as well.

A lot of it has to do with the brain's odd habit of cross-wiring input on the left-right axis, according to the researchers. Sounds that enter the right ear are processed initially by the left side of the brain, which controls speech, language, and certain kinds of memory retention.

In children under the age of about 13, this right-ear dominance plays a large role in comprehension. Because kids don't have a fully developed auditory system, they tend to rely on the more efficient right-ear, left-brain pathway. In adulthood, the left ear eventually “catches up” to the right ear.

That's the conventional wisdom, anyway, and previous research has backed up the theory that the adult auditory system processes sounds more or less equally from each ear. In simple listening tasks, adults tend to retain information coming in from either or both ears.

However, if you start ramping up the difficulty of certain listening tasks, the right-ear advantage comes back into play, said researcher Danielle Sacchinelli, who presented the findings at this year's conference.

“The goal of this study was to increase the auditory working memory task to see if we could elicit the right-ear advantage phenomena in mature, typically developing adults,” Sacchinelli told Seeker.

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Sacchinelli's research team asked 41 participants ages 19-28 to complete a series of listening tasks that would gradually become more complex and demanding. During the tests, subjects wore earphones in which different sets of numbers — ranging from two to nine digits — were piped into each ear.

“The participant was instructed to pay attention to one ear while ignoring the other, then recall the order of numbers in the directed ear,” Sacchinelli said.

With each subsequent test, the researchers increased the number of items by one. While they found no significant differences between left and right ear performance with short sequences of numbers, the right ear started pulling ahead when the number sequences got longer. In fact, performance improved an average of 8 percent when test subjects focused on their right ear, and some individuals improved by up to 40 percent.

The results suggest that when the going gets tough — when the brain has to sort out complex ideas in a loud and busy environment — the human auditory system prefers to listen through the right ear.

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As to the practical value of the research, Sacchinelli said the new data may be able to help develop treatments for those with hearing and comprehension difficulties. The research could also help technicians make better hearing aids.

"The more we know about listening in demanding environments — and listening effort in general — the better diagnostic tools, auditory management, and auditory training will become," Sacchinelli said.

And if you're having trouble understanding the guy at the crowded party, lean in with the right ear.

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