Chapter 10: Processes of Perception and Analysis

Section 8: Auditory Perception

Auditory system

Sound is detected by the motion it causes in hair cells in the cochlea of the inner ear. When vibrations of a particular frequency enter the cochlea an active process involving hair cells causes the vibrations to be concentrated at a certain distance down the cochlea. To a good approximation this distance is proportional to the logarithm of the frequency, and going up one octave in frequency corresponds to moving roughly 3.5 mm. Of the 12,000 or so hair cells in the cochlea most seem to be involved mainly with mechanical issues; about 3500 seem to produce outgoing signals. These are collected by about 30,000 nerve fibers which go down the auditory nerve and after several stops reach the auditory cortex. Different nerve cells seem to have rates of firing which are set up to reflect both sound intensity, and below perhaps 300 Hz, actual amplitude peaks in the sound waveform. Much as in both the visual and tactile systems, there seems to be a fairly direct mapping from position on the cochlea to position in the auditory cortex. In animals such as bats it is known that specific nerve cells respond to particular kinds of frequency changes. But in primates, for example, little is known about exactly what features are extracted in the auditory cortex.

The fact that there are a million nerve fibers going from the eye to the brain, but only about 30,000 going from the ear to the brain means that while it takes several million bits per second to transmit video of acceptable quality, a few tens of thousands of bits are adequate for audio (NTSC television is 5 MHz; audio CDs 22 kHz; telephone 8 kHz). Presumably related is also the fact that it is typically much easier to make realistic sound effects than realistic visual ones.

From Stephen Wolfram: A New Kind of Science [citation]