This week’s Hearing International features the legendary Steve McQueen – the “King of Cool” as he was known in his heyday in the 1960s and 70s.  His tumultuous childhood from very meager beginnings and his hearing loss shaped his life and relationships with others, including those closest to him.

With his blond hair, blazing blue eyes and chiseled features, his face was more eloquent than any of the lines written for him in his most famous hit movies, The Great Escape (1963), Bullitt (1968), Getaway (1972) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).  Who could ever forget the chase scene from Bullitt between a ’68 Dodge Charger and a ’68 Mustang through the streets of San Francisco?  He made 27 films, beginning with a bit part in “Somebody up There Likes Me” (1956) about the life of the boxer Rocky Marciano.  His big break came in 1958 with a rather strange, inauspicious debut in a leading role with the movie “The Blob” (1958), playing Steve Andrews, an innocent young guy on lovers lane with his girlfriend, who battles a slimy space invader that comes to earth in a meteor  decimating and terrorizing a rural town in Pennsylvania. While not exactly the King of Cool debut, it got him noticed for television for a very successful television series, the 1958-61 CBS series “Wanted: Dead or Alive”.  McQueen later became one of the few early ’60s TV stars to successfully make the transfer back to a career in motion pictures. He had a raw yet gentle air that appealed to both male and female movie goers as a romantic hero and an adventurer.   McQueen fans like to believe that he was uncompromisingly macho, yet with a gentle heart.  Not exactly Steve McQueen the real person

A Hearing-Impaired Recluse

Steve McQueen was almost a recluse in private life, shunning parties, Hollywood socializing and other places where communication and interaction was necessary and there are a number of reasons for that behavior.  The short version of his childhood story is that he was born March 24, 1930 to a teenage prostitute, Jillian Crawford.  He never knew his real father, Terrance McQueen, a stuntman for a flying circus who deserted his mother six months after they met.  At about age 3, Steve’s mother abandoned him to live on a Missouri farm with a great-uncle for years at a time while she walked the streets of Los Angeles.  She would occasionally feel guilty, relent and take him back for a while, then he would go back to the farm. By the age of nine he was being beaten so badly by his mother’s new husband that he took to sleeping on the streets of Los Angeles. 

After running away to join a travelling circus, he eventually returned to the city where he joined a street gang. After stealing hubcaps when he was 14, he was sentenced to 18 months at the Boy’s Republic reform school, which he later credited for saving his life by “turning him around”.  He donated money and goods to the school anonymously throughout his lifetime. By 16, he was working as a ‘towel boy’ in a brothel, where he was encouraged to sample the goods whenever he pleased.  He enlisted in the Marine Corps  in 1947 and was stationed at Camp Lajune, North Carolina where he worked as a tank driver and mechanic, spurring his lifelong interest in vehicles, especially motorcycles.  The three year stint in the Marines further toughened the young McQueen and he received a commendation for rescuing five Marines from a training accident.  After his time in the Corps,  surviving on menial jobs and shoplifting, a friend suggested acting school.  Since it seemed a good way of meeting pretty girls, he took advantage of GI Bill education benefits in 1952 to study at the Actors’ Studio in New York City.  Over the next 6 years or so he became a temperamental actor enjoying great success in television and movies. While successful in television and movies, his life is also an intriguing and lustful story of three torrid marriages, a philandering brush with Charles Manson, motorcycle racing, a fondness of conceal/carry guns and target practice, a true love for his children and a suspicious death November 7, 1980 in a cancer clinic in Santa Maria, Mexico.  But what about his hearing impairment……

“Deaf” in his left ear since about age 6 from the latent stages of otitis media, his hearing deficit was likely the result of childhood neglect and the lack of antibiotics in the 1930s.  In his left ear, an ear infection turned into a mastoiditis that plagued him throughout his life.   Mastoiditis is usually caused by a middle ear infection (acute otitis media). The ear infection may spread from the ear itself into the mastoid bone of the skull. The mastoid bone is filled with “air cells” and has a honeycomb-like structure and, when infected, may deteriorate leading to permanent hearing loss. Mastoiditis usually affects children and, before antibiotics, it was one of the leading causes of death in children. Currently, it is relatively uncommon and much less dangerous condition but when present it may be difficult to treat as even today’s medications may not reach deep enough into the mastoid bone to clear the infection.  Even today the disease may require repeated or long-term treatment.  In McQueen’s time, the 1930s antibiotics had yet to be discovered and surgery was the usual treatment. The surgical intervention was to remove part of the bone and drain the mastoid (mastoidectomy) and was common among children of that time.  Also common was surgery to drain the middle ear through the eardrum (myringotomy)  to treat the middle ear infection.  While these procedures are still provided today, they were commonplace in the 1930s and it is safe to assume that McQueen probably had none of these options available due to the neglect. 

Now we know that the complications of untreated mastoiditis is sensori-neural hearing loss, tinnitus, possibly vertigo which can persist for days at a time.  There is also evidence that at age 20, while scuba diving he ruptured his left eardrum adding to his hearing difficulties for the left ear. Between that and the residual from the mastoiditis, Lempert (2014) indicates that he was functionally deaf in his left ear.  Most audiologists would likely deduct from this hearing history that he had a significant conductive hearing loss from the mastoiditis and the eardrum rupture that to some extent probably turned into sensori-neural in the latent stages.  This history could logically expect a 40-60 dBHTL hearing loss that was somewhat better in for high frequencies.  During most of his lifetime noise exposure was not considered a hearing health hazard.  While the left ear would have been somewhat sheltered by the conductive hearing loss, the right ear would have been exposed to noise from years of shooting, automobile, motorcycle and other unprotected hazardous noise activities well-known to create high frequency sensori-neural hearing loss, likely creating some high frequency hearing loss in the right ear for McQueen.

It is likely that he did not understand the speech of women, particularly from the left and in noisy situations and this issue would have been worse when trying to listen from a distance. Childhood notwithstanding, some of his overt behaviors on movie sets and in relationships could have been due to the hearing loss.  This could have contributed to the torrid relationships with women, who have high frequency voices that would have been more difficult to understand, and other people in his life. The hearing loss, high frequency voices, distance hearing often through noise could have led to misunderstandings at home and created some frustration on movie sets.  Considering the history and his reclusive behavior as well as communication in his close relationships, it is possible that this hearing loss may have contributed substantially to his overall behavior. 

With his checkered childhood still fresh in his memory at age 33;   Mr. McQueen wrote: “When I did ‘The Great Escape,’ I kept thinking, if they were making a movie of my life, that’s what they’d call it – the great escape.”  

Click on the pic to the right for the Motorcycle jump video.

 

 

References:

Ebert, R. (1980). Remembering Steve McQueen. The Interview.  Retrieved February 6, 2017.

Honan, C. (2011). The heart throb who hated women:  wife beater, drug taker and relentless

     philanderer, the brutal truth about Steve McQueen.

Lampert, N., (2014).  Why my dad was cinema’s Mr. Mean by Steve McQueen’s son. Daily

     Mail.  Retrieved February 6, 2017.

 

 

 

 

Do you have something in common with Stan Laurel of Laurel and HardyJim Carey, Jeff Goldblum, Sean Connery, Steven Colbert, or Mr. Spock?  Are you an Ear Wiggler?  Only 10 to 20% of us can wiggle our ears – how cool is that?  While we know that Mr. Spock is part Vulcan and part Human and the same may even be said for Jim Carey and the others, it’s a fact that some of us can wiggle our ears and others cannot. 

What Controls This Activity?

The auricularis superior is one of three extrinsic muscles of the ear. It is a thin, fan-shaped muscle that arises from the temporal fascia (connective tissue along the side of the head) and descends into the root of the auricle, or ear. The other muscles in this region include the auricularis posterior and the auricularis anteriorIn humans, these three muscles do very little action but all three affect the auricula. The Latin term pinna is another word for auricula or auricle, which refers to the externally visible, cartilaginous structure of the external ear (the part we usually refer to as the ear). The primary action of the auricularis superior is to draw the auricula of the ear upward and backward. The action of the auricularis anterior is to draw the auricula forward and upward. The auricularis posterior serves to draw the auricula backward.  Some people can control their auricular muscles to move the ear slightly but to a noticeable extent, an ability that seems to have a genetic basis.  Click on the Picture to see how Stanley’s ears move. 

Some families seem to be able to wiggle their ears and other families have no one that can wiggle their ears. The inheritance pattern is unclear and does not appear to have a simple dominant-gene mechanism.  An old study published in 1949 in the journal Hereditas involved 104 men and 70 women. It found that 74% had at least one parent who was a wiggler, and 47% had a sibling who was a wiggler.  So there seems to be a connection, but it is not obvious.  Some of us can voluntarily move the ears and have an overt reflexive control of the pinnae, but this volunteer movement seems to have been lost during the course of primate evolution. 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. 2015 study in the journal Psychophysiology reviewed past research on the auricular nerves and found indications that the system could have been adapted to respond to sounds. The research found that neural circuits for pinna orienting have survived in a purely vestigial state for over 25 million years. A vestigial structure is a rudimentary biological structure that is evolutionarily derived from a larger, more fully functional homolog. Darwin (1871) recognized the existence of vestigial structures as an important line of evidence for biological evolution  Hackley (2015) indicates that there are three lines of evidence demonstrating this vestigial behavior:

(1) Shifting the eyes hard to one side is accompanied by electromyographic (EMG) activity in certain ear muscles and by a barely visible (2–3 mm) curling of the dorsal edge of the pinna.

(2) The capture of attention by a novel, unexpected sound emanating from behind and to one side has been found to trigger a weak EMG response in the muscle behind the corresponding ear.

(3) Reflexive EMG bursts recorded during a selective attention task suggested that subjects were unconsciously attempting to orient their ears toward the relevant sounds.

In addition to pinna orienting, the possibility that pinna startle might have survived in a vestigial state is also considered. It is suggested that the postauricular reflex to sudden, intense sounds constitutes a vestigial startle response, but that the reflex arc is dominated by a pathway that bypasses the main organizing center for startle. For example, shifting the eyes from side to side produces weak electrical activity in ear muscles and a minuscule curling of the outer edge of the ear, and a sudden noise behind one ear elicits weak electrical activity in the muscles behind that ear.  Click on the picture to the above right and watch his ears wiggle.  Some researchers, such as Maller (2014) of Monash University (Australia) suggests that activation of higher-order cognitive processes, such as ear wiggling, seems to create larger gains in recovery during brain damage than repetitive tasks, which he feels is most likely due to neuroplasticity. In his opinion, neuroplasticity is promoted by task complexity. Ear wiggling is a rare, complex skill among humans that may activate and promote advanced recovery after a brain injury by utilizing the increased cognitive complexity of learning a new task, such as ear wiggling.

Ear Wiggling Instructions

Some of the references feel that that ear wiggling is a genetic capability while others believe that, with a bit of diligence, the practice can be taught to those of us that do not have the gene.  So if you want to influence your friends with a new useless skill, try this technique offered by the only semi-reliable source WikiHow (2017):

  1.  Try feeling your ears lightly and feel if they move.
  2. Not everyone can wiggle both their ears, so make sure you avoid focusing on one ear – you might not notice the other ear wiggling!
  3. When you try wiggling your ears, look in the mirror. If you see the other ear wiggling, then you are talented!
  4. Try to move one ear only. It is more difficult to move two at a time as it takes different muscles.
  5. Practice with a friend that can do it too, like games to exercise the muscles.
  6. Keep in mind that if you wiggle your ears too much, you could possibly give yourself a headache.
  7. While looking in a mirror, see if your ears move when you smile; oftentimes when a person smiles, their ears raise, or move, along with the smile. This may be a good starting point to try to isolate those muscles.
  8. To help you isolate the muscles that move your ears, try making a really big smile. This will naturally make your ears go up and help you to feel the muscles that wiggle your ears.
  9. You should keep trying different ways such as smiling and raising your eyebrows as you probably won’t get it the first time.

 

Good luck and have fun learning!

There are many “how to” videos located at YouTube.com to assist you in the process of learning to wiggle your ears.   If you have about 20 minutes for a semi-sexist Our Gang silent movie about Ear Wiggling, click here or on the movie. Remember this clip comes from 1929.     

 

 

 

 

 

 

References:

Hackley, S. (2015). Evidence for a vestigial pinna-orienting system in humans.  Physchophysiology, 52(10), pp. 1263-1270.  Retrieved January 31, 2017.

Healthline (2017).  Auriculus Superior.  Retrieved January 31, 2017

Maller, J. (2014). Neuroplasticity in normal and brain injured patients:  Potential relevance of ear wiggling locus of control and cortical projections.  Medical Hypotheses 83(6).  Retrieved February 1, 2017.

Ray, C.C. (2017).  Born to be an ear wiggler? New York Times.  January 16, 2017.  Retrieved February 1, 2017.

WikiHow (2017). How to wiggle your ears.  WikiHow. retrieved February 1, 2017.

Videos:

Hugebrane (2010).  Can you wiggle your ears?  YouTube.com.  Retrieved February 1, 2017.

Gorman C.  (2016) Stan’s Wiggling Ears.  YouTube.com  Retrieved January 31, 2017.

Roach, H. (1929).  Wiggle your Ears.  His Rascals, Robert McGowan Producer.  Retrieved February 1, 2017.