by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
© November, 2020
A lady asked,
I’ve had ringing in my ears for several months now either due to taking a drug, or a smoke alarm suddenly going off. It is so strange though. For a couple of days, my left ear will have low ringing, then it will stop and go to my right ear and it will ring for a few days . Then , it seems like both ears ring. What is going on with my tinnitus and my ears? This is totally confusing to me. Should I be worried?
Excellent question. It almost seems like your brain can’t make up its mind where your tinnitus is coming from, doesn’t it? And if you think that, you’d be exactly right. Let me explain.
As you know, your brain sits inside your skull. What you may not have thought of is that your brain sits there in total silence and total darkness. It knows absolutely nothing about the world around it of its own knowledge. The only way your brain knows anything of what is going on around it is by the signals it receives from your sensory organs (ears, eyes, nose, etc).
Since we are talking about tinnitus, I will limit this explanation to just our ears and sound signals. Your brain receives voluminous electrical impulses from your ears. As it processes this enormous string of electrical impulses, it begins to form a 3-dimensional picture of the sound environment around it. Since it can’t “see” the real picture itself, this 3-D picture is your brain’s “best guess” from where the various sound signals are coming. Sometimes this “best guess” is very clear and accurate. Other times its “best guess” is “way off”. It all depends on the “quality” of the sound signals it receives.
Tinnitus signals, since they are really phantom sounds, can be rather nebulous at times. Thus, sometimes your brain’s “best guess” is that the sound signal is coming from your left ear. Thus, you perceive tinnitus in your left ear. Conversely, sometimes its best guess is that the sound signal is coming from your right ear. Consequently, you perceive your tinnitus in your right ear.
Furthermore, sometimes your brain’s best guess is that the tinnitus sound signal is coming from both ears. Thus, you “hear” your tinnitus in both ears at the same time.
There is even a fourth possibility. That is that your brain’s best guess is that the sound signals don’t come from either ear, but are just right there in your brain. In this case, you “hear” your tinnitus inside your head without reference to either ear.
As you now can appreciate, a lot depends on how well your brain interprets, and makes sense out of, the very complex sensory input it receives. To be sure, a lot of the time your brain gets it right. So if you had a blow to your left ear, for example, you probably will hear tinnitus as coming from your left ear.
It’s only when the sound signals are ambiguous that your brain has a tough time making sense out of these signals. Thus its “best guess” may be fairly accurate or “way off”.
Thus whether you hear your tinnitus in one ear, both ears or without reference to either ear doesn’t really mean anything as far as you are concerned. It just means your brain is having a tough time figuring out where those phantom tinnitus sound signals are supposedly coming from, and that is subject to change as new signals arrive.