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Would it be possible for an extraterrestrial humanoid or superhero to increase and decrease their hearing at will, and if so, how? I'm thinking specifically of an alien who can somehow adjust their hearing (solely on a biological level and without the aid of advanced technology) so as to have highly advanced hearing when necessary (so as to hear things very far away), and then to revert back to humanlike hearing the rest of the time, so as to avoid the distractions I'm sure would come with such an ability.

Once again, this is all without the aid of advanced gadgets or technology. I'm looking for something that is purely a biological/physiological ability the said extraterrestrial possesses. If such an ability is possible (maybe by way of some kind of humanoid sonar?), please let me know how, and let me know if any further clarification is necessary.

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Animals have that. Some animals have huge ears that gather sound and can point in a desired direction, just like a spy’s umbrella-looking microphone thing.

My dog can form her ears into cups when she wants, but otherwise relaxes and they fold down and in general don’t hold that dish shape. When she hears something she activates her full hearing power by deploying the parabolic funnels and turns them in the direction of the suspicious soind.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good point, @JDlugosz. I've actually found that humans can do this too (aim their ears towards a source to amplify sound perception), we just have to use our hands because we don't have muscles that actually do this. $\endgroup$ – C. S. Wright Jun 27 '17 at 0:54
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Seems like a fishy problem, here! Okay that's a pun; there is a biological mechanism called the Weberian Apparatus that acts as an amplifier and resonance chamber (using the fish's swim bladder) to give fish (only a certain order; including carp and minnows) extremely sensitive hearing. From the link:

The Weberian apparatus functions by transmitting auditory signals straight from the gas bladder, through the Weberian ossicles and then straight into the labyrinth structures of the inner ear. The structure essentially acts as an amplifier of sound waves that would otherwise be only slightly perceivable by the inner ear structure alone. With the added function of the swim bladder as a resonating chamber, signals are amplified to noticeable levels.

In short these fish have a second route to the inner ear, one which humans (and most other fish) do not have, which give them extremely sensitive hearing.

The apparatus consists of four parts, from the posterior (swim bladder side) to the anterior (inner ear side) they have the whimsical names of the tripus, intercalarium, scaphium and claustrum. The tripus connecting to the bladder is fairly large; the intercalarium small and thin (pencil shaped), and the scaphium is medium sized (relative to the others, they are all extremely tiny in absolute terms, in the ear of a minnow). These are connected by ligaments.

A fairly minor alteration, the addition of a small voluntary muscle, could pressurize (push against) one of these first three bladder-side components to absorb vibrations, and make this channel "deaf". I think the long thin pencil shaped intercalarium would be a good bet.

Or if you prefer, have the muscle work the opposite; when relaxed it rests against the intercalarium and absorbs vibrations amplified by the bladder; when energized it pulls away from the intercalarium and gives the alien super-hearing.

I don't think you need to make the alien aquatic in any way (any more than humans are aquatic; I mean we did have a fish ancestor hundreds of millions of years ago and still have some "inner fish" biological remnants, see Your Inner Fish).

This may be just something preserved from their particular evolutionary path because in their environment, super-hearing proved useful (perhaps for hunting very quiet animals, or evading very quiet predators). They may not have a swim bladder anymore, but instead it evolved into a tiny pinhead size amplifying sac in their head and near their inner ear, which they can activate at will.

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It don't see a problem with explaining this biologically. Mainly there are two ways to go about it:

Multiple hearing systems

This is conceptually very easy. Your alien has multiple hearing systems (one for 'normal' conversations, one for extreme range, maybe additional ones like bat sonar) and can switch between them or turn them on/off at will. If you don't want to the switching to be a 'merely' neural thing, then make it last a few minutes (or hours) during which synapses are reformed, or shut down/activated on a molecular level.

Biological sensitivity adaptation

This is an analogy to the way human (or mammal/...) eyes can adapt to different light intensities. It probably wouldn't work with the human ear, but that really doesn't have to stop you:

  • Instead of an iris, which controls the ingoing light amount, the ears of your alien can change shape or the tension of the membranes can be adapted through muscles
  • The sensivity of the nerves (or rather the actual receptor molecules) can be fine tuned on different levels allwoing multiple magnitudes of sensivity, like the photocepetors in the cone and rod cells (from link above):

    This ability of photoreceptors to avoid saturation and respond to an increased flux of incident photons at different levels of ambient light is due to several changes occurring in these cells. The changes allow photoreceptors to adapt to different levels of ambient light by adjusting the sensitivity by adjusting the amplification factor of the phototransduction cascade, and the rate of recovery of cGMP levels. The amplification factor of the phototrasduction cascade can be controlled by: 1) the lifetime of rhodopsin in its biochemically active state, metarhodopsin II, and the availability of G protein, transducin in proximity to metarhodopsin II; 2) the lifetime of the activated transducin complex with phosphodiesterase 6 (PDE6); and 3) the affinity of the cGMP-gated channels for cGMP (Figure 3).

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This Might be possible in an alien, but not likely in the way you probably would think. Using vision as an analogy, we have certain animals that have film on their eyes which protects them from dust, water, and sunlight, as well as allowing them to see better in the dark. I think you could have anatomical dials/ filters/ membranes that would allow an alien to do this, if coupled with the natural ability to stretch/ contort one's ears to pick up on faint sounds. Now would this be efficient? Probably not. It would take a great deal of energy that could be used for other things. The question you'd have to ask is WHY did such a thing develop, and HOW it would be beneficial for them.

As far as a superhero goes... the typical thing that you see in fiction is that it's handwaved away that the hero is able to ignore what's not immediately useful to the situation, so I don't know how that helps you any.

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The extraterrestrial humanoid exemplar of this problem in being able to increase or decrease their hearing at will is the Kryptonian.

The simplest model for Kryptonian super-hearing would be that the Kryptonian's hearing is permanently super. They can hear everything all at once within the range of their super-hearing. The auditory cortex of their brain processing the acoustic information does so selectively to filter out all the unnecessary sound and noise.

But this processing would enable to select for specific sounds like someone crying "help!" or more particularly if the person crying help was, for example, Lois Lane. This is a more advanced version of Cocktail Party situation where people can pick out specific words or person's talking from the hubbub of the background noise in the party.

Kryptonians also possess super-intelligence among their many powers and abilities far beyond those of ordinary mortals. This suggests their capacity for raising and lowering their hearing at will should be a normal function of the superhuman auditory processing of their brains.

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