Unlike dogs and cats, people do not point their ears as they focus attention on novel, salient, or task-relevant stimuli. Our species may nevertheless have retained a vestigial pinna-orienting system that has persisted as a "neural fossil" within in the brain for about 25 million years. Consistent with this hypothesis, we demonstrate that the direction of auditory attention is reflected in sustained electrical activity of muscles within the vestigial auriculomotor system.
Surface electromyograms (EMGs) were taken from muscles that either move the pinna or alter its shape. To assess reflexive, stimulus-driven attention we presented novel sounds from speakers at four different lateral locations while the participants silently read a boring text in front of them. To test voluntary, goal-directed attention we instructed participants to listen to a short story coming from one of these speakers, while ignoring a competing story from the corresponding speaker on the opposite side.
In both experiments, EMG recordings showed larger activity at the ear on the side of the attended stimulus, but with slightly different patterns. Upward movement (perking) differed according to the lateral focus of attention only during voluntary orienting; rearward folding of the pinna's upper-lateral edge exhibited such differences only during reflexive orienting. The existence of a pinna-orienting system in humans, one that is experimentally accessible, offers opportunities for basic as well as applied science.