Wiggling your ears is a neat party trick, like rolling your tongue or licking your nose. Such abilities are often considered genetic; you can either do them naturally or not at all.
But is this actually correct? If you wanted to, could you train yourself to wiggle your ears?
According to Daniel J. Strauss, a professor of neuroscience and neurotechnology at Saarland University Hospital in Germany, there is good news for anyone who has dreamed of learning to move their ears at will — though it will likely take a lot of practice and training.
"It has been shown to be possible," Strauss told Live Science in an email. "In a recent study, we provided visual feedback — some sort of display of muscular activation on a screen — which could help people 'train' specific ear muscles."
Related: What animal has the largest ears?
Strauss' research (opens in new tab), carried out in conjunction with professors from Saarland University and the University of Missouri, aimed to see whether audio stimuli could encourage involuntary ear movements in the study's 28 participants. The findings could, according to Strauss, be the first step toward humans being able to utilize voluntary ear movements to a much greater degree.
Some animals — such as dogs, cats, horses and rabbits — can move their ears at will to better focus on certain sounds. This ability is useful for avoiding predators and, for some animals, finding food. For instance, cats have 32 muscles in each ear (opens in new tab), whereas the human ear contains just three (opens in new tab) — the auricularis superior, the auricularis anterior and posterior auricular.
The external part of the ear in humans and other mammals is known as the pinna; in many animals adept at hunting, or liable to be hunted, pinna movements and eye movements often accompany one another, allowing them to focus more keenly on "auditory or visual stimuli." (opens in new tab)
Strauss hypothesized that humans have "retained a vestigial pinna-orienting system that has persisted as a 'neural fossil' within the brain."
There are many examples of vestigial structures — attributes within the human body that have lost their function over time — such as wisdom teeth and coccyx (tailbone).
According to an article published by Washington State University (opens in new tab) in 2019, "scientists are still debating why we still even have a coccyx," with some regarding it crucial because ligaments and muscle are attached to it, while others deem it entirely redundant. Meanwhile, wisdom teeth, which were once used by our ancestors to chew particularly rough food, are also no longer needed, but still cause millions of people to experience pain if they become infected or erupt past the gumline, typically in adulthood.
Likewise, throughout evolution humans may have become less adept at moving our ears in the direction of particular sounds — something cats, dogs and monkeys can do with ease — because it is not necessary for our survival, Stauss suggested.
"Other species rely on the tuning of the 'acoustic radar' much more than we do," Strauss said. "For humans, this ability got 'lost' in evolution. For our ancestors that were alive millions of years ago, ear movements were associated with the tuning of an acoustic radar system, which helped them to localize threats."
However, Strauss has suggested that, rather than disappearing entirely, our capacity to perform this function has become "fossilized" — an idea his research has supported.
"We showed that vestigial movements of muscles around the ear indicate the direction of sounds a person is paying attention to," Strauss said. "For our particular research, involuntary muscle activations are extremely interesting, as they are coupled to our ancient attentional system."
So, according to the results of Strauss' research, we all have the ability to move or wiggle our ears, and such movement can be prompted by sound. However, Strauss admitted, such movements are barely noticeable.
Why some people can wiggle their ears
Strauss' research suggests that, while everyone has the ability to move their ears to some extent, "some people have traits that allow them to wiggle their ears more easily than others."
"Stronger muscles around the ear certainly help," Strauss noted.
There has been very little research into whether the ability to wiggle one's ears is hereditary, but one study, carried out in 1949 and published in the journal Hereditas (opens in new tab), seems to suggest that someone is more likely to be able to move their ears if one of their parents can do it. The study, which assessed the ear-wiggling abilities of 174 people, found that almost three in four (74%) people who could move their ears had a parent who possessed the same ability.
But does Strauss believe that, if someone is willing to put in the hours, they could learn to wiggle their ears voluntarily, just like comedy icon Mr. Bean?
"Maybe everybody can learn that," Strauss said.
Originally published on Live Science on March 31, 2012 and rewritten on July 9, 2022.