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Ears Are for More Than Just Hearing

A Personal Perspective: Rethinking the value of ears.

Ears are strange for, despite their extraordinary value as hearing organs, they are strikingly under appreciated and under-valued. (1)

We have no vocabulary and no physiognomics for ears as we do for lips or noses or eyes. We do not have sensuous ears as we do lips, nor a generous or cruel ear as we do with mouths, nor even enchanting, come-hither ears as we do for eyes. It seems a pity.

Poet Thylias Moss deeply appreciates ears, "My ears are combination locks." Locks apparently to her heart and perhaps elsewhere, from "my husband's whispering in the cinema or at dinner, things for my ears only" (Moss, 1999:36). She loves her husband's ears and calls them her “confessional:”

“I have said to him that his ear is a partial flower, a single petal, part of an iris, dark, as dark as the wax his ear contains, because it is night and I can't see color anymore. His ear is a night flower; it blooms only at night; it unfolds and releases a powerful fragrance.”(Moss, 1999:40-2)

A rare poetic description: combination locks, a confessional, an iris, a night flower, and fragrant too.

Yet, for all that, ears are essentially passive. Unlike eyes or hands or feet, which are extremely active and do things, ears are primarily only recipients of sense data. They don't seek them out. They are lazy. They are takers rather than givers, but what they take from what they hear is infinitely various. Ears are not entirely trustworthy.

They hardly even move, again, unlike eyes, lips, genitals. The ears of dogs or deer are constantly in motion.

Ears are not only instruments of hearing (and balance), they are also indicators of emotion, (blushing), and occupations or hobbies (the cauliflower ears of boxers and rugby players). They may be sites of medical or physiological problems (infections, deafness). They may be a source of amusement to cartoonists; but they can also be a cause of torment for children teased at school, and students who had their ears flicked by passing teachers. They are also useful storage areas for pencils and for smokes.

Furthermore they are convenient sites for status display: diamond earrings will do that, or sites for rebellion among youth. I remember one young man, a budding musician, who came home one day sporting an earring, expecting to scandalize his parents, and probably hoping to as well; but he told me that they quite liked it, and I could sense his disappointment. The ring was a bit pointless after that, I suppose. Anyway, it disappeared soon afterwards.

The most famous ear in history is surely Van Gogh's ear, which he severed and presented to a lady friend. He was not in great mental health at the time. He painted a self-portrait looking rather glum, with his head swathed in bandages, and committed suicide soon afterward. But what was the friend supposed to do with it? Place it on her mantle-piece and show it to her friends? "Look what Vince gave me! Isn't he sweet? I always wanted another one!"

The ear of Caiphas’ servant, the War of Jenkins Ear, and Mike Tyson’s 1998 bite, seem to have played a part in history.

We might wish to check our own ears for what Charles Darwin has described as "a little blunt point, projecting from the inwardly folded margin, or helix." This, says Darwin, is an indicator of our line of descent, for it is "a vestige of formerly pointed ears" of our marsupial ancestors, still to be seen in some humans and some orders of monkeys (Darwin, 1981/1871. Vol. 1:22-3). Our origins are written in our ears.

‘Batwing’ or ‘jumbo’ ears can be problematic but can be fixed by cosmetic surgery. Some 53,095 otoplasties (ear surgeries) were performed in 2020, according to the latest data released by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), of which 58 percent were performed on women. The average cost was $3,736 for a total ear surgery economy of $198,378,313: a small fraction of the total $16.7 billion spent in the US on the 22.4 million Cosmetic and Reconstructive procedures performed. (ASPS 2021).

An American surgeon, James Stallings, has described the case of Jeff, aged 8, who was always fighting at school, getting poor grades and in trouble with his principal because of his lop ears. Stallings asked Jeff what was going on:

Little Mr. Tough Guy’s lips quivered and he brushed away tears with the back of his hand. “They look at me and laugh and call out, ‘Dumbo, Dumbo, there’s Jeff the Dumbo, elephant ears Dumbo,’” he said, looking down at his hands and then, in a swift mood swing, he held his head high and looked at me defiantly. "I bet you think that's nothing to get so mad about. But there's worse. Sometimes they yell at me, 'Hey, Jeff, you left the car doors open, why don't you shut your ears?"' (1980:117)

This story had a happy ending. Surgery fixed the ears and simultaneously removed the negative looking-glass self that had in turn created the negative body image, then the negative self-image, and so the behavior problems, in the classic sequence. The changed ears reversed the causal sequence and changed Jeff's life. A success story for cosmetic surgery.

Aurognomy and Otyognomy

Face-reading and palm-reading are popular practices, and we may practice these arts ourselves; but there is an equally long tradition of ear­ reading. Aristotle, for instance, was an acute observer of ears, both of their structure and of their moral symbolism. He went into considerable detail in his “History of Animals”: 784

Of ears, some are fine, some are shaggy, and some are of medium texture; the last kind are best for hearing, but they serve in no way to indicate character. Some ears are large, some small, some medium-sized; again, some stand out far, some not at all, and some take up a medium position; of these the medium sort are indications of the best disposition, while the large and outstanding ones indicate a tendency to irrelevant talk or chattering.

Though ignored in Johann Lavater’s classic “Essays in Physiognomy” (1783), this neglect was remedied by the end of the next century, when an anonymous article was published in the Strand Magazine in 1893 entitled, "A Chapter on Ears." The article was profusely illustrated with photographs of various high status characters, including Queen Victoria, together with a suitably gelatinous commentary. By the author's calculations, 75 percent of the criminals in police files have prominent antihelixes. Cardinal Manning, however, whom the photograph shows has a prominent antihelix, is an exception (1893:526). Likewise the author grants that Paderewski's ear "with its deep elongated concha, should rather belong to a coal-heaver than to the first pianist of his age" (1893:391).

In "The Cardboard Box" (1892), Sherlock Holmes pontificates to Dr. Watson that "there is no part of the human body that varies so much as the human ear. Each ear is as a rule quite distinctive, and differs from all other ones" (Doyle, 1960:74). Indeed, the solution of this case depended on Holmes' noticing the family similarity in the ears before him. Conan Doyle was probably the Anon (1893) author, not only because Holmes is the only detective who ever seemed interested in ears, but also because he published his stories in that magazine, and this article was only one year after the story.

But truth is stranger than fiction. Soon after the publication of this story, Alphonse Bertillon, the French criminologist, now mostly remembered as the advocate of finger-printing for criminal identification purposes, was advocating photography of the ear for the same purposes:

But where the ear is most clearly superior for identification purposes is in cases where the court requires an assurance that a particular old photograph 'beyond doubt represents the person here before us' there are no two identical ears and if the ear corresponds that is a necessary and sufficient proof that the identity does too, except in the case of identical twins.' (In Ginzburg, 1988:117).

Bertillon apparently was an admirer of Conan Doyle's great detective, perhaps because the two of them thought so alike, as great minds are alleged to do, at least about ears.

Nonetheless, fiction is also stranger than truth. Otiognomy persisted into the second half of the twentieth century in Ian Fleming's “Casino Royale” (1953). The villain, Le Chiffre is described by the British Secret Service as follows: "Ears small, with large lobes, indicating Jewish blood" (1963:20) - a coded way of saying that the bad guy is Jewish which is, as Mordecai Richler commented sarcastically, "a new one on me." It reappears with Blofeld in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1965:68). The ear replaced the nose as the stereotypical index of Jewish ethnicity. But the "Fleming Ear Syndrome," as Richler calls it, reappears in another of Fleming's novels, with Blofeld in “On Her Majesty's Secret Service” (1965:68; Richler, 1973:58-62). Of course, this may have been Ian Fleming's idea of a joke.

Last, but not least, the ear is also an erogenous zone, for talking, licking, flattery, whatever the ear desires, which clearly suggests a neural, or mental, as well as an aural, connection between the ears and the genitals.


Ears, then, are sites for status display, youthful rebellion, emotions, plastic surgery, markers of character or criminality for some in the past, indicators of marsupial ancestry, and sources of erotic pleasure. Not simply organs of hearing and balance. Ears are many things!


American Society for Plastic Surgeons, 2021. Plastic Surgery Statistics Report.

Anon, 1893. “A Chapter on Ears.” Strand Magazine. Vol. 6:388-94, 525-7.

Aristotle 1984. The Complete Works of Aristotle. Ed. Jonathan Barnes. Bollingen Series. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Cherry, Samuel and Anna, 1900. Otyognomy: or The External Ear as an Index to Character. New York: Neely.

Darwin, Charles 1981 [1871]. The Descent of Man. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan 1960. His Last Bow. London: Murray.

Fleming, Ian 1963 [1953]. Casino Royale. London: Pan.

Fleming, Ian 1965. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. London: Pan.

Ginzburg, Carlo 1988. “Clues: Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes.” In Umberto Eco and Thomas A. Sebeok (Eds.) The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Pierce. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Moss, Thylias 2000. “Some Praise for a Little Right-Sided Anarchy (that is also a tribute to the Lobe Girls.” In Sharon Stone Fiffer and Steve Fiffer (eds) Body. New York: Perennial Books.

Richler, Mordecai 1973. Shovelling Trouble. London: Quartet Books.

Stallings, James O. 1980. A New You: How Plastic Surgery Can Change Your Life. New York: New American Library.