This survey lecture on the biomechanics of hearing sensitivity is concerned, not with how the brain in man and other mammals analyzes the data coming to it along auditory nerve fibers, but with the initial capture of that data in the cochlea. The brain, needless to say, can produce all its miracles of interpretation only where it works on good initial data. For frequency selectivity these depend on some remarkable properties of the cochlea as a passive macromechanical system, comprising the basilar membrane with its steeply graded stiffness distribution vibrating within the cochlear fluids. But the biomechanics of hearing sensitivity to low levels of sound (at any particular frequency) calls also into play an active micromechanical system, which during the past few years has progressively been identified as located in the outer hair cells, and which, through a process of positive feedback, amplifies (in healthy ears) that basilar membrane vibration. This in turn offers the inner hair cells an enhanced signal at low sound levels, so that the threshold at which they can generate activity in auditory nerve fibers is, in consequence, very substantially lowered.

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