Ear-orientation in humans – a review

Would you like to be able to move your ears at will? There’s a good chance you already can (using a 25 million-year-old neural circuit). Dr Samuel Alexander Kinnier Wilson [pictured] was the first to formally document the so-called oculoauricular phenomenon in his 1908 paper ‘A note on an associated movement of the eyes and ears in man’ (in Review of Neurology and Psychiatry, 6, 331–336.)

Wilson found that around 40% of experimental subjects were able to move the outer rim of their pinnae, 2-3 mm or so, by purposely shifting their eyes either extreme left or extreme right.*

A review of human pinna-orienting has recently been undertaken by Dr. Steven A Hackley of the Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri, USA.

“Humans and apes do not move their ears to express emotion, they do not defensively retract them when startled, and they do not point them at novel, salient, or task-relevant stimuli. Nevertheless, it is the thesis of this review that neural circuits for pinna orienting have survived in a purely vestigial state for over 25 million years.”

He also points out that :

“Our ears cannot pivot toward a sound source because the extrinsic muscles are attached too near the base to achieve leverage, because the muscles for controlling pinna position, orientation, and curvature are innately small and weak, and because the ears themselves are rigid and bony. The neuromuscular system for orienting our ears during focused attention is quite useless, a fact that should give pause to those who advocate the teaching of creationism or intelligent design in public schools.”

see: ‘Evidence for a vestigial pinna-orienting system in humans’ in Psychophysiology, Volume 52, Issue 10.

*Why not try this at home?