Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Once when i was in a taxi, the driver was attempting to make conversation and asked what I did. I usually try to avoid the subject with some people, because when i say “I study the inner ear” a lot of people feel the need to unload their medical problems regarding earwax upon me. Only half-way through their offering a sample (ugh) can I correct them. Anyway, this cabbie did just that–asking me this and that about earwax. After I said I had no idea, he seemed rather like “Well then what DO you know!” Its even worse when i try to reply that I study hair cells in the ears—invariably this results in ear-hair queries. Its usually pretty amusing, but I’ve found that trying to explain the inner workings of the cochlea to a Detroit cabbie at 2am is an exercise in futility.

There’s a great description of the genetics of earwax over at Discovering Biology today. Did you know that Asians have “hard ear wax” and Europeans have “wet ear wax”? Well there is a genetic reason for this which is quite fascinating (go check it out). This actually confirms an observation I made while in China last year: most of the spas there offer an “ear candle” therapy which involves, well, a waxy candle in the ear which removes built up ear wax. I always thought, ‘Ew, who needs that?’ but obviously, there’s a good scientific reason why some people might.

I’m still not going to try to explain it to cabbies though.


  1. #1 Sandra Porter
    August 10, 2006

    Oh, I can see it now. Spooky music, lots of smoke on the screen, and a serious voice begins:

    “Have you talked to your cabbie about….


  2. #2 Cody
    August 10, 2006

    There’s also good scientific evidence that shows ear candling is bunk.

    (Scroll down)

  3. #3 Shelley Batts
    August 10, 2006

    Thanks for the info Cody! There are a lot of strange “therapies” over there—drinking pickled snakewater, eating certain weird minerals, etc—so not too surprised this doesn’t work either. Although it seemed to be really popular (and hilarious for us Americans to see all these people w/ candles sticking out of their ears in a spa.)

  4. #4 kemibe
    August 10, 2006

    “…when i say ‘I study the inner ear’ a lot of people feel the need to unload their medical problems regarding earwax upon me.”

    This is why you’ll never see a urologist or a proctologist hail a cab. Christ in a vat of cerumen.

  5. #5 somnilista, FCD
    August 10, 2006

    Ditto on ear candling being bunk. It has caught on amongst some new age types. Also look into cupping. It’s equally effective.

    Phrasing is important. Instead of saying you study the ear, why don’t you start by saying that you study hearing? Or you could tell them you’re a crime-fighting superhero.

  6. #6 zusty
    August 10, 2006

    Agreed, maybe saying you’re working on a cure for some kinds of deafness would be snappier for the public.
    I usually end up saying I make video game monsters. Poor unspecialized people!

  7. #7 Ktesibios
    August 11, 2006

    Pity I don’t drive a cab. Getting you for a fare would have been the perfect trigger to blather about the noise-induced hearing loss demo CD I made for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame backk in the late ’90s…

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