My new brain column: Tinnitus, from ears to consciousness

My new column for Discover is about tinnitus, the ringing in the ears that affects a third of all people at some point in their lives. While tinnitus may seem to like it’s in our ears,  its source actually lies deep within our brains–possibly spread across the networks of neurons that make us consciously aware of our lives. The better scientists can appreciate its full reach, the better they may be able to treat it. Check it out.

[Update: Link fixed to take you to the first page of the column, not the second.]

11 thoughts on “My new brain column: Tinnitus, from ears to consciousness

  1. your article would benefit from consideration of the centuries of investigation into inner sounds in such mystical traditions as radha soami, and many others … and into a large understanding of what consciousness is, and the distinctions that need to be made between “consciousness” and “awareness” or “perception”.

  2. I read your article with great facination. I have tintinitus, what sounds like billions of little silver bells ringing in my ears, or I guess now, my whole brain. It helps just to know what’s doing it.

  3. I’m surprised that tinnitus is a cortical phenomenon. I’d have guessed it originated in the brainstem.

    Gregorylent: I’m not aware of any agreed-upon distinctions between consciousness and perceptual awareness.

    quibble: “one of their first stops is the auditory cortex”. It takes a minimum of 4 neurons to reach auditory cortex.

    Very interesting stuff. Not clear whether attentional distraction relieves tinnitus by moving the cortical attention network (the “spotlight”) away from the dysfunctional activity in primary auditory cortex or whether shifting attention actually changes activity in primary auditory cortex.

  4. Interesting about the attentional distraction — would this be the inverse of the effect that my tinnitus gets subjectively louder when my attention is drawn to it? (It’s been fairly raging ever since I started reading that article ;-)).

  5. Yes, thanks, Carl for writing that column. I tell people that I am deaf in my left ear, but that’s not strictly true–I can hear in it but can’t hear over the tinnitus. The volume goes from easily ignorable to too loud to sleep. It was fascinating to learn more about the condition and how pervasive its effects on my brain have no doubt been. And I suppose any act of understanding makes this condition or that a little easier to bear. It’s sort of like a traffic jam: I usually feel marginally better about being in one when I understand the reason for its existence.

  6. I am reasonably certain my tinnitus is due to the aquatic lifestyle I lived on the shores of the eastern pacific. Swimming, body surfing, surfing and diving starting at a very early age, I suffered numerous ear infections, injuries and, of course, severe swimmers ear. My left ear (brain) sounds like a jet engine at 2/3 throttle (I can discern multiple frequencies in this ‘noise’) and the right is a continuous mid pitched tone. Occasionally, in either ear, I experience a very noticeable, higher volume, low or high tone which lasts seconds.

    As other posters have pointed out, the more your mind focuses on the tinnitus, the worse it seems to get. Having suffered this from childhood, I believe my brain ‘learned’ to tune it out and I was eventually able to actively do this. I know too that some medications, caffeine and exhaustion seem to make it worse.

    At my age, I don’t expect to benefit from this good science but I am happy to know that others will, eventually (or eventually, eventually, eventually for those of us in the US).

    Great article, Carl. Thank you.

  7. Fascinating article. I’ve suffered from tinnitus for 20 years. It’s never gotten permanently worse, but I’ve noticed what makes it temporarily worse is sinus and ear pressure – which I’ve suffered from all my life. (Loud music gives me an entirely different type of ringing, a hum, which goes away. )

    If you ever do a follow up, I’d like to see if any doctors have made any links with chronic sinus and ear infections/irritation/inflammation and tinnitus.

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