Do you have something in common with Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy, Jim Carrey, 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 Carrey and the others, it’s a fact that some of us can wiggle our ears and others cannot.
What Controls the Ability to Wiggle Our Ears?
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 anterior. In 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 voluntary 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.
A 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
How to Wiggle Your Ears: 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):
- Try feeling your ears lightly and feel if they move.
- Not everyone can wiggle both their ears, so make sure you avoid focusing on one ear – you might not notice the other ear wiggling!
- When you try wiggling your ears, look in the mirror. If you see the other ear wiggling, then you are talented!
- Try to move one ear only. It is more difficult to move two at a time as it takes different muscles.
- Practice with a friend that can do it too, like games to exercise the muscles.
- Keep in mind that if you wiggle your ears too much, you could possibly give yourself a headache.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
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.
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.