Experts have found the right ear provides “optimal auditory information processing” in adults and children.
The US study team said listening requires sensitive hearing and the ability to process information.
But everyday background noise and interruptions by other people make understanding what is heard more difficult.
Noise experts at Auburn University in Alabama have found that in noisy environments, both children and adults depend more on their right ear for processing and retaining what they hear.
Study co-author Danielle Sacchinelli said: “The more we know about listening in demanding environments, and listening effort in general, the better diagnostic tools, auditory management such as hearing aids and auditory training will become.”
The researchers used a variety of listening tests to diagnose auditory processing disorders in which the brain has difficulty processing what is heard.
Listeners received different auditory inputs delivered to each ear simultaneously, such as sentences, words or numbers.
They were told to either pay attention to the items delivered in one ear while dismissing the words in the other or required to repeat all the words heard in both ears.
According to the researchers, children understand and remember what is being said much better when they listen with their right ear.
Sounds entering the right ear are processed by the left side of the brain, which controls speech, language development, and portions of memory.
Each ear hears separate pieces of information, which is then combined during processing throughout the auditory system.
However, young children’s auditory systems cannot sort and separate the simultaneous information from both ears.
As a result, they rely heavily on their right ear to capture sounds and language because the pathway is more efficient.
What is less understood is whether this right-ear dominance is maintained through adulthood.
The team asked 41 volunteers aged 19 to 28 to complete both similar listening tasks.
With each test, the researchers increased the number of items by one.
They found no significant differences between left and right ear performance at or below an individual’s simple memory capacity.
However, when the item lists went above an individual’s memory span, participants’ performance improved by up to 40 per cent when they focused on their right ear.
Researcher Professor Aurora Weaver said: “Conventional research shows that right-ear advantage diminishes around age 13, but our results indicate this is related to the demand of the task.
“Traditional tests include four-to-six pieces of information. As we age, we have better control of our attention for processing information as a result of maturation and our experience.”
The findings were presented yesterday (Wednesday) at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, in New Orleans, Louisiana.