78 Hearing and bionic ears

Based on Research by Hermann von Helmholtz, 1877. Psychology Science Minute written by Psychological Association, adapted by Juanita N. Baker, Ph.D..

What has psychology contributed to formerly deaf persons now being able to hear?

In the 1860s, Hermann von Helmholtz, one of the founders of psychology, studied the perception of sound and music. Helmholtz theorized about the precise physiological basis of hearing, arguing that receptors in different physical locations on the basilar membrane – a coiled structure imbedded in the inner ear – responds to sound waves of different frequencies. Experiments by Nobel-prize winning physicist Georg von Bèkèsy later confirmed and refined many of von Helmholtz’s ideas. One hundred years later psychophysicist S. S. Stevens helped refine Helmholtz’s ideas showing that our auditory system organizes sounds into 24 distinct channels. Their work allowed physiologists to describe the biological basis of hearing so precisely that researchers were able to create a “bionic ear.”

Pioneering scientists in the 1960s gave a few brave deaf patients cochlear implants.  Many Researchers since in sciences ranging from physics and engineering to physiology, computer science, telecommunications and psychology have all played important roles to refine implants and study ways to help persons learn and adjust to their “bionic ears.

By 2010, over 200,000 people worldwide have received cochlear implants, allowing better communication, enjoyment, and safety.


Hermann von Helmholtz. (1877). On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music. London, NY: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Georg von Békésy (1974), “Some Biophysical Experiments from Fifty Years Ago”, Annual Review of Physiology 36: 1–16, doi:10.1146/annurev.ph.36.030174.000245, ISBN 978-0-8243-0336-5, PMID 19143520

S. S. Stevens, Egan, J.P., and Miller, G. A. (1947). Methods of Measuring Speech Spectra. J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 19, 771 (1947). http://dx.doi.org/10.1121/1.1916622

For more details see:

American Psychological Association, February 19, 2004


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