What percentage of people can wiggle their ears?
December 4, 2006 12:38 AM   Subscribe

Ear wiggling/waggling: what percentage of people can visibly move their ears by voluntary exertion of their auricular muscles? I am especially interested in the results of medical / biological surveys on this question, if there have been any. I have read that 'Spanish men are twice as likely to wiggle their ears (20 percent) as are women,' but don't know the source or trustworthiness of this statistic, or if the Spanish are exceptional in this regard.

I am an unilateral waggler (left side only), so would also be interested to know the relative commonness of single-ear & double-ear waggling. Apparently, people who can raise one eyebrow and wiggle an ear tend to do so on the same side of their faces: have any other such correlations been determined? I understand that ear-waggling is an ability that can be learned, and that in theory everyone is capable of it, I just was curious to know how prevalent it is in the untrained population at large.
posted by misteraitch to Science & Nature (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Anecdote: I can raise my left eyebrow, or both, but not really my right very well. I can't wiggle my ears separately, although it definitely feels like a stronger wiggle on the left side when I wiggle them.

I seem to remember doing ear-wiggling in high school biology (if, in theory, everyone is capable of it - and I suspect you're right, since it was a learned thing for me - I guess it's a common myth that it is a genetic trait) and hearing that 20% of the American population could do it.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 12:45 AM on December 4, 2006

I can raise both my ears, independently of each other. As far as amazing genetic talents go, I would have preferred superhuman strength or telepathy, but thems the breaks. I am, so far, the only person I've met with this powerful earwiggling force.
posted by prentiz at 1:02 AM on December 4, 2006

I can wiggle both left and right much to the amusement of my SO but like prentiz I've not met anyone else who can do it, or prehaps people are just to embarrassed to admit it.
posted by rus at 1:18 AM on December 4, 2006

Not sure how many percentages you're going to get, so here's another anecdote - I can wiggle my ears, but not independently of each other - it's both or neither. I can't waggle my eyebrows independently either - I guess I'm just very symmetrical.
posted by altolinguistic at 2:20 AM on December 4, 2006

I am, so far, the only person I've met with this powerful earwiggling force.

uh, i don't think this is very uncommon. i can do it and definitely no one's ever marvelled at it.

i learned to wiggle my ears when I got glasses. I guess my face just kept wanting to hike them up a bit, so the muscles in my ears developed. I still find it easier to wiggle them (separately or together) when I have glasses on.

i wouldn't be surprised if everyone is capable of it.
posted by Marquis at 2:21 AM on December 4, 2006

I can wiggle my ears together. I can move my eyes left and right independantly of eachother.
posted by Goofyy at 3:24 AM on December 4, 2006

I have a feeling everyone can do it, it's just a muscle that's pretty tough to isolate. I learned to wiggle my right ear by sitting alone in a dark bathroom for what felt like hours. Most of the people on my father's side of the family can wiggle one or both. I stopped at one then but can slightly move my left ear now. The left ear takes a lot more conversation than the right.

I was ten or 11 when I figured out the right ear. It does usually impress people when I think to do it.

I haven't bothered to practice raising my eyebrows independently of each other.
posted by bilabial at 3:51 AM on December 4, 2006

I can do each ear independantly or both together. I can also raise either eyebrow independently, I'm working on a mexican face-wave (left ear, left eyebrow, right eyebrow, right ear).

As a kid, I could never do the left ear independently, but I practiced a bit and it came naturally. The eyebrows were learned also. I could only do the right one to begin with, but practiced a bit and now can do both. The face wave is not far off... :)

I only know of two other person who can, my fiancee and a friend in London.
posted by gaby at 4:11 AM on December 4, 2006

Goofyy - I can do the independent eye thing - I taught myself after the optician told me my eye muscles were too weak and I needed to practice going cross-eyed.
posted by altolinguistic at 4:27 AM on December 4, 2006

I can wiggle both ears at once, but not separately. I can raise my right eyebrow independently, but not my left. And, this just discovered, I cannot wiggly my ears if one or both of my eyebrows are raised.
posted by purplegenie at 6:04 AM on December 4, 2006

gaby - when you manage the mexican face wave, please post a video!

more anecdotal evidence - I can wiggle my ears, both at the same time. I can't raise an eyebrow independent of the other one, but I can make my eyeballs vibrate if I go cross-eyed. Freaks people out every time.
posted by corvine at 6:44 AM on December 4, 2006

Corvine: I've seen that vibrating eyeballs thing. It's the most disgusting stupid human trick I've ever seen, including popping out a (prosthetic) eyeball at random times during dinner.

Can you teach me?
posted by spaceman_spiff at 8:11 AM on December 4, 2006

I can wiggle both ears, or just my left ear independently, but not my right ear independently. Everyone on my father's side of the family can wiggle their ears, no one on my mother's side can do so. One of my sisters mastered the one-eyebrow-up in a burst of Spock fandom in the seventies, but no one else in the family can do it.
posted by ambrosia at 9:48 AM on December 4, 2006

Huh. I thought I could do each eyebrow independently, but attempts prove that I can only do the left, or both. Same with ears - either the left alone, or both.

Which is particularly weird, since I'm a righty everywhere else (hand, foot, eye, etc.), and consider myself one of the more left-brained people I know.

I have no idea what the rates are for people in general, and I doubt this thread is going to help much, as only the people who can seem to be replying.
posted by timepiece at 11:33 AM on December 4, 2006

Well, neither my brother nor my sister can do it (I can, both but not independent of one another) so I think that negates the 'everyone can do it' thing.
posted by nonmerci at 5:13 PM on December 4, 2006

Response by poster: > I doubt this thread is going to help much, as only the people who can seem to be replying.

Yes, that's too bad, although I still live in hope that someone out there has access to the detailed results of some frivolous yet rigorous research on the matter. The supposed Spanish figure of 20%/10% is a little higher than I would have expected, as oftenest the ability seems classed—albeit vaguely—as ‘uncommon.’

What Marquis said about learning to earwiggle on getting glasses rang a bell for me: I think this was how I acquired the ability too. Perhaps waggling is commonest among the bespectacled? If so, this might account for the phenomenon’s apparent rarity in ancient times: Aristotle even wrote ‘Of animals possessed of ears man is the only one that cannot move this organ.’

Meanwhile, I am in awe of your super-localised face-&-head muscle-control...
posted by misteraitch at 12:12 AM on December 5, 2006

I don't believe that there is a genetic disposition to wiggling ears. I could never do it until I got glasses and I somehow taught myself to use those muscles. It's probably just a matter of learning to use typically useless muscles.
posted by elkelk at 8:33 AM on December 5, 2006

An non-ear-wiggler here. There's a section in Wegner's The Illusion of Conscious Will where he discusses experiments on ear-wiggling. I think that he might mention the percentage of people that are able to wiggle their ears. I'll look it up when I get home tonight and report back tomorrow.

If you're wondering why a book on conscious will would include a bit on ear-wiggling: IIRC, in 1901 a man named Bair built an ear-wiggling device that would zap the retrahens (ear-wiggling) muscle with an electric current. It turns out that voluntary ear-wiggling could not be taught through repeated experiences of involuntary ear-wiggling. This leads to a tentative conclusion that voluntary acts occur through different nerve pathways than involuntary acts.
posted by painquale at 4:29 PM on December 6, 2006

Believe it or not, since posting 2 days ago, I have learned to wiggle my right ear independently. The right eyebrow still eludes me, however.
posted by timepiece at 4:59 PM on December 6, 2006

Best answer: OK, I looked it up, and here's the relevant sentence: "He [Bair] constructed an ear wiggle measurement device to assess the movement of the retrahens muscle behind the ear, tried it on a number of people, and found that the majority (twelve of fourteen in his study) couldn't move their ears using this muscle." Such a small study doesn't give enough information to generalize, but it comports with the statistic that you came across.
posted by painquale at 8:02 PM on December 6, 2006

Response by poster: Very interesting painquale, thanks: I'd seen mention of the learning-via-electrical stimulation thing, but it's nice to have a printed source for it.
posted by misteraitch at 1:13 AM on December 7, 2006

Response by poster: @ timepiece: bravo! I've still not been able to train my right ear to waggle... maybe I just need to electrocute myself in the right spot...

@ painquale: perhaps you'd be interested in this--
"The mechanism behind ear movements is sophisticated," says Bastiaan ter Meulen, who led the ear wiggling study, accepted for publication in the journal Clinical Neurophysiology.

Unlike other facial muscles, ear muscles have their own accessory nucleus, a control area for muscle function, in the brainstem, says ter Meulen, a researcher at Erasmus MC, a university medical centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

"Compared to animals, especially bats and cats, this nucleus is rather small in humans," he says.

He says that a muscle involved in eye movement also directly controls ear motion. That's why when we look left or right, our ears slightly withdraw on both sides.

Breathing and swallowing are also linked to ear movement through muscles and neuronal pathways.
Ter Meulen and team made these determinations after conducting an EEG, or brain wave test, on a 43-year-old woman who lost consciousness and experienced rhythmic bursts of ear movement.

Their study marks the first time such ear muscle activity has ever been documented in an EEG.--source here

posted by misteraitch at 2:50 AM on December 7, 2006

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