When it comes to language, it may be true. According to recent research by audiologists at Auburn University, there could be an advantage to listening with our right ears, especially for children and noise-distracted adults.
The phenomenon is known as the right-ear advantage: Speech heard through the right ear reaches the part of the brain that processes it in about 20 milliseconds. Speech heard through the left ear, however, takes anywhere from 3 to 300 milliseconds longer to reach the same part of the brain.
Why? The speech we hear in our right ears can travel directly to the left hemisphere of our brains, which is generally thought to be where language is processed. Speech received by the left ear takes a less direct route, resulting in a lower processing speed. From the left ear, sound signals travel first to the right hemisphere of the brain. Then, they are relayed via the corpus callosum — a broad band of nerve fibers that connects the hemispheres — which finally passes them onto the left hemisphere. This means that, even though we can hear with both ears, our brains more efficiently process speech heard with the right ear because those signals arrive more quickly.
In children younger than 11, the right ear advantage is the most noticeable. A typical 7-year-old will correctly repeat information heard by the right ear about 70 percent of the time, compared to only about 55 percent of the time when the information is heard by the left ear. A 9-year-old is accurate about 80 percent of the time with their right ear and 75 percent with their left. An 11-year-old is about as accurate as most adults, which is close to 90 percent in both ears.
The right-ear advantage is more apparent in children whose myelin membranes are less developed. The myelin is an insulating sheath that facilitates faster impulse transfers through the corpus callosum. Because the myelin develops with age, the right-ear advantage tends to dwindle over time. In fact, for most adults this phenomenon isn’t noticeable unless we are processing complex information that exceeds our basic memory capacity.
When adults hear the same speech in both ears at the same time, there is no perceivable advantage with the right ear. Rather, problems occur when we receive signals that have to compete with each other. When adults are trying to pay attention to multiple sources of speech at the same time, memory capacity is quickly exceeded, and the right-ear advantage comes back into play. In these studies, distracted adults are shown to have anywhere from a 7 to 40 percent advantage when using their right ear.
With this in mind, the next time you lean in to talk to someone in a noisy room, check which ear you’re leaning towards — is it the right one?