Talk to the Right Because the Left Isn’t Listening

Do you think you have a favourite ear? Recent research has shown that most people prefer to listen with their right ear when forced to choose between the two.

When trying to listen to someone speak in a noisy situation it is common to turn your head to present one ear closer to the person speaking. This is actually counter-intuitive as humans hear much better when using both ears and making eye contact. The reason we offer only the one ear is mostly tied up in social etiquette. We must decrease the distance between the speaker and ourselves, however if we were to continue facing the speaker and listening with both ears as we slowly creep closer to their face, it would make a considerable invasion into their personal space. Instead we choose to turn our heads, presenting just one ear to the speaker. However due to asymmetries in our brains, it seems that when choosing which ear to present, humans seem to have a preference for their right ear.

The brain is divided into two hemispheres, each one controlling different functions. In most people, the area responsible for understanding speech and language is located in the left hemisphere of our brain. Neural information lateralises to the opposite side of the brain from where a sensation originates (for example, your right arm is controlled by the left hemisphere of your brain). This means that information received in the right ear is transferred directly to the language dominated left hemisphere. This does not mean the left ear cannot understand speech; the two hemispheres do communicate with each other and are connected by a structure called the corpus callosum, meaning the hemispheres are not entirely separate entities unto themselves. However, this does mean that information received in the left ear must first be transferred from the right hemisphere to the language centre in the left hemisphere for processing. This results in neural processing of language being slightly longer for sounds received in the left ear and consequently humans usually choosing to put their right ear forward in a tricky listening situation.

Researchers have carried out a number of experiments in Italian nightclubs which provide real world confirmation of a right ear advantage[1]. One study found that people were more likely to offer up their right ear for whispered verbal requests in difficult listening environments. Another experiment showed that when participants did not have a choice over which ear received a verbal request they were more likely to respond correctly if it was spoken into their right ear. This second experiment was necessary to show that the right ear preference was due to the functional and cognitive benefits of quicker auditory processing and not just a subjective preference for the right ear.

There is one interesting aspect to the concept of the right ear advantage that recent studies have not yet answered – what if you exhibit language dominance in the right hemisphere of your brain? Whilst left hemisphere language dominance is considered the norm, people can differ in which side of their brain carries out the primary language function. Left hemisphere language dominance, which is responsible for producing the right ear advantage, is present in about 90% of people. Yet it is uncertain whether the remaining ten percent who exhibit right hemisphere language dominance experience a left ear advantage or simply no advantage for either ear. Interestingly, a higher proportion of left-handed people (around 30-40%) show evidence of right hemisphere language dominance and may therefore have a left ear advantage[2].

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// Chris Brennan-Jones is a final year audiology student at Queen Margaret University

Creative Commons License Talk to the Right Because the Left Isn’t Listening by Chris Brennan-Jones is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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