Why Old Men Have Big Ears

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research, now in all-pdf form. Get a subscription now for only $25 a year!

A review of ear research
by Alice Shirrell Kaswell, Improbable Research Staff

Old Folks Have Big Ears
Old men have big ears, is the consensus of several medical studies on the question. The most celebrated work focused exclusively on men, in accordance with British male doctordom’s smug tradition of showing interest mainly in themselves. But in Japan and in Germany, wide-ranging investigations broke through the patriarchal hegemony. The newer studies made plain, for anyone who cared to know, the long-untold half of the story: that old women have big ears.

The British action played out in a characteristic location: the pages of the British Medical Journal, where all body parts are always of interest.

In 1993, Dr. James A Heathcote, a general practitioner in Bromley, set out to answer the question: “As you get older do your ears get bigger?” Dr. Heathcote and three colleagues examined the ears of 206 men of various ages, then presented his findings in a monograph called “Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?”

“Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?” James A. Heathcote, British Medical Journal, vol. 311, 1995, p. 1668.

It begins with a salute to happenstance: “A chance observation—that older people have bigger ears—was at first controversial but has been shown to be true.” Using the pronoun “we” in a manner that excludes half of the population, Dr. Heathcote wrote: “As we get older our ears get bigger (on average by 0.22 mm a year)”.

The biggest oddity, ears aside, comes at the end. Almost in defiance of its title, the paper mutters: “Why ears should get bigger when the rest of the body stops growing is not answered by this research.”

Salvador Dali's ear at different ages.

Outside Britain, ear-growth data-gatherers took the trouble to also look at man’s counterpart: woman.

In Japan, primary care physicians Yasuhiro Asai, Manabu Yoshimura, Naoki Nago and Takashi Yamada measured the ears and height of 400 adult patients—of both sexes—who visited their clinics. The team’s 1996 report, “Correlation of Ear Length with Age in Japan,” also appeared in the “we’re-all-ears” British Medical Journal.

“Correlation of Ear Length with Age in Japan,” Yasuhiro Asai, Manabu Yoshimura, Naoki Nago, and Takashi Yamada, British Medical Journal, vol. 312, March 12, 1996.

The doctors claim two discoveries: “Ear length correlates significantly with age, as Heathcote showed, in Japanese people,” and “ear length corrected for height shows [even] greater correlation with age.”

A decade later, Carsten Niemitz, Maike Nibbrig, and Vanessa Zacher at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, took a look at lots of ears. They examined data from a thesis by a scientist named Montacer-Kuhssary, published at the university in 1959.

“Human Ears Grow Throughout the Entire Lifetime According to Complicated and Sexually Dimorphic Patterns—Conclusions from a Cross-Sectional Analysis,” Carsten Niemitz, Maike Nibbrig, and Vanessa Zacher, Anthropologischer Anzeiger, vol. 65, no. 4, December 2007, pp. 391–413.

Montacer-Kuhssary’s data were of a rare kind: photographs of 1448 ears from newborn children, older children, and adults up to and including 92-year-olds.

For each ear, the team made fifteen different measurements. They confirmed, they say, that ears never really stop growing throughout a person’s lifetime.

But the big surprise came from comparing women and men: “In all parameters where post adult growth was observed, female ears showed a lesser increase than those of men.” Old men have bigger ears than younger men to a greater extent than old women have bigger ears than younger women.

Montacer-Kuhssary, by the way, noted back in 1959 that people’s noses, too, usually grow throughout their lifetimes. But in the race toward biggerness, said Montacer-Kuhssary, ears outpace noses.

Lavater’s Take on Ear Types
Johann Casper Lavater, in his 1775 book Physiognomical Fragments, towards Promoting the Knowledge of Men and Human Love, drew several types of ears, and commented upon each. Here is a set of drawings, with some of Lavater’s accompanying verbiage:

We can now describe these ears, taking them in rows from left to right, beginning at the top row.

Ear 1.—Division (1) is short and thick, much curved, and joining Division (2). Division (3) is absent. Division (4) is long and well shaped, nicked slightly where Division (5) begins, which is very long and thick, running down to a large pendent lobe. The orifice is rather narrow….

Ear Dominance in Telemarketers
“Ear Dominance and Telephone Sales,” Adrian Furnham, Simon Richardson, and Tony Miller, Perceptual and Motor Skills, vol. 85, no. 2, October 1997, pp. 451–7. The authors, at University College London and at Frzizell Financial Services, Bournemouth, UK, explain:

In a field study, three equally sized sales teams used one of three head-sets—left, right, both ears—for a day’s selling of insurance by telephone. This had no effect on sales. In a retrospective study of records, daily sales performance including the percentage conversion rate for sales divided by the number of calls and the number and duration of calls was related to preference for type of head-set. Sales were markedly influenced by the choice of head-set. People who chose to wear the left earpiece significantly outsold the others wearing right and stereon headsets. Neither the number of incoming calls nor the time spent on the telephone were influenced by the choice of head-set. When sales are analysed in terms of individual differences in personal preference for type of head-set, those who chose the left ear had an advantage. Forced use of the left, versus right ear or both ears for one day had no effect.

This article is republished with permission from the March-April 2012 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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