Whose ears popped first?
December 6, 2014 2:36 PM   Subscribe

I know why our ears pop, but I'm wondering when humans reliably began experiencing this sensation caused by anything other than having a cold. Today, we are most likely to feel our ears popping in a airplane or driving a car in the mountains. But before planes and cars, and besides the head colds and infected sinuses that have always been with us, what caused our ears to pop first?

What is the earliest transportation technology that allowed humans to reliably experience this sensation? Or is there any natural phenomenon that causes this in a large scale way?

Can a person climb a mountain, or can a horse or mule carry a person up fast enough to experience it? Can a person scramble down the grand canyon fast enough to have their ears pop? Is there a pre-industrial tradition of free-diving that had people underwater deep enough or long enough to experience the ear pop, before scuba divers? Did divers in a diving bell experience this, were caisson workers the first? Can a low pressure weather front move fast enough to cause it (I'm sure a tornado could cause it for a very localized area, but let's restrict this to common large-scale weather formations)? Is there a generally accepted value for change in atmospheric pressure over time that causes our ears to pop?
posted by peeedro to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
My ears pop every time I swallow or yawn, or I can just do it on purpose by slightly adjusting my jaw in a way I don't know how to articulate. I'd expect that as soon as our anatomy allowed it evolutionarily (and I don't know when that was) they started popping. I'm not sure how to separate that from atmospheric popping.
posted by brainmouse at 2:43 PM on December 6, 2014

Can a person climb a mountain ... fast enough to experience it?

Yup. You don't even need to be climbing, just walking briskly up a mountain path.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:43 PM on December 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

The first person to fall off a high cliff? (Not sure if free-falling is considered a "transportation technology"....)
posted by tivalasvegas at 3:01 PM on December 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Google comes up with a lot of anecdata but a lot of that anecdata ranges to hundreds to one-two thousand feet per minute in air to cause popping. This would not typically happen on foot. Major city dwellers, does an 80+ story elevator do it?

I think OP is on the correct track regarding ocean exploration or artificial pressurization of a vessel. Ascent/descent through the atmosphere probably requires a fairly modern aircraft (or a downward catastrophe in an early aircraft) to achieve the necessary rates in air.
posted by ftm at 3:10 PM on December 6, 2014

Free diving for food probably.
posted by fshgrl at 3:13 PM on December 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

Sliding down a snowfield.
posted by Namlit at 3:20 PM on December 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

It doesn't even take a head cold. Just really lousy sinuses, which I'm sure someone in our ancient past had to have suffered from. My sinuses constantly drain and, as a result, I'm constantly popping my ears.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:24 PM on December 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

You don't have to dive very deep to make your ears pop, either.
posted by Andrhia at 3:25 PM on December 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sliding down a snowfield.

I'm not sure my ears have ever popped while skiing.

Which is odd, because it's an entire day of going up and down 1500 feet (at my local ski hill).

Major city dwellers, does an 80+ story elevator do it?

Not a Major City Dweller, but yes. I know for a fact that both the Space Needle (~500 feet) and the 60th floor of the Chase building in downtown Houston (~800 feet) both caused my ears to pop.
posted by Hatashran at 3:36 PM on December 6, 2014

My ears pop nearly every time I ride a train through the tunnel under the Hudson River...
posted by Devoidoid at 4:38 PM on December 6, 2014

Is there a pre-industrial tradition of free-diving that had people underwater deep enough or long enough to experience the ear pop, before scuba divers?

Yes, absolutely. Records of pearl diving as a profession go back thousands of years.
posted by poffin boffin at 4:48 PM on December 6, 2014

My ears pop at like 6' under
posted by fshgrl at 5:13 PM on December 6, 2014

Hot air balloon might be earliest form of transportation to do it.
posted by 724A at 5:26 PM on December 6, 2014

Last time I walked up a mountain, my didn't-feel-like-I-had-blocked-sinuses ears popped, as did those of a friend I was walking with. This happen after about 500m of ascent (from sea level).
posted by ambrosen at 5:41 PM on December 6, 2014

My ears pop sometimes descending from my 9th floor office.

posted by Jahaza at 6:54 PM on December 6, 2014

My ears have definitely popped free-wheeling a bicycle down a steep hill.
posted by redlines at 7:51 PM on December 6, 2014

I've had my ears pop when coming down a small mountain on a not-very-speedy day hike.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:46 AM on December 7, 2014

The modern diving-bell was invented by John Smeaton in 1788, and the first references to ear-popping occur fairly soon after that. The Russian physician Joseph Hamel (Iosif Gamel, 1788-1861) mentions it in his paper 'On the Diving-Bell as a Means for Curing Deafness', 1816 (pdf available by subscription, free text on Google Books). The sensation was so new to Hamel that he didn't realise he could relieve the ear-popping simply by swallowing:

When I was in the diving-bell, and made my exertions to admit air into the Eustachian tube, I was not aware of the simple way in which it is effected. Dr Wollaston informed me, that nothing is wanted but to swallow the saliva .. To admit the air into the ear, one must merely swallow saliva, and at one of these exertions the air will rush in, if the obstruction be not very considerable.

Of course the phenomenon had been known in some form since antiquity. Aristotle says that divers put olive oil in their ears, or tied sponges round them, to try and stop their eardrums bursting. (He also describes the slight ear-popping caused by yawning.) The science to explain it had been around since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Bartolomeo Eustachi described the Eustachian tube and Blaise Pascal showed that barometric pressure was affected by altitude. But ear-popping as such doesn't seem to have been properly described till the nineteenth century. Hamel wasn't even sure if other people experienced it too:

I was anxious to know whether men that had been in diving-bells before, had noticed the same sensations as myself, and I made them describe to me what they had felt. Among other things they stated, that when at a great depth it had been to them "as if a shot was fired through their brain." This was evidently the rushing in of the air through the Eustachian tube.
posted by verstegan at 10:54 AM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Humans have very similar ears to other mammals. It is the opening and closing of the Eustachian tube that causes the popping sensation, and that is in response to pressure changes. Pressure does not just change from altitude -- air pressure changes as the weather changes. I have had my ears pop during a rapid change from high to low air pressure during a storm, for example. This is an interesting Wiki on the evolution of ears in mammals. I imagine that ear popping - or a similar sensation - has occurred in mammals before humans came along, as a response to changes in external or internal pressure.
posted by DoubleLune at 1:56 PM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

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