Journal of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology

, Volume 5, Issue 4, pp 349-359

First online:

Do Forward- and Backward-Traveling Waves Occur Within the Cochlea? Countering the Critique of Nobili et al.

  • Christopher A. SheraAffiliated withEaton–Peabody Laboratory of Auditory Physiology, Massachusetts Eye and Ear InfirmaryDepartment of Otology and Laryngology, Harvard Medical School Email author 
  • , Arnold TubisAffiliated withDepartment of Physics, Purdue UniversityInstitute for Nonlinear Science, University of California
  • , Carrick L. TalmadgeAffiliated withNational Center for Physical Acoustics, University of Mississippi


The question of whether or not forward- and backward-traveling waves occur within the cochlea constitutes a long-standing controversy in cochlear mechanics recently brought to the fore by the problem of understanding otoacoustic emissions. Nobili and colleagues articulate the opposition to the traveling-wave viewpoint by arguing that wave-equation formulations of cochlear mechanics fundamentally misrepresent the hydrodynamics of the cochlea [e.g., Nobili et al. (2003) J. Assoc. Res. Otolaryngol. 4:478–494]. To correct the perceived deficiencies of the wave-equation formulation, Nobili et al. advocate an apparently altogether different approach to cochlear modeling—the so-called “hydrodynamic” or “Green’s function” approach—in which cochlear responses are represented not as forward- and backward-traveling waves but as weighted sums of the motions of individual basilar membrane oscillators, each interacting with the others via forces communicated instantaneously through the cochlear fluids. In this article, we examine Nobili and colleagues’ arguments and conclusions while attempting to clarify the broader issues at stake. We demonstrate that the one-dimensional wave-equation formulation of cochlear hydrodynamics does not misrepresent long-range fluid coupling in the cochlea, as claimed. Indeed, we show that the long-range component of Nobili et al.’s three-dimensional force propagator is identical to the hydrodynamic Green’s function representing a one-dimensional tapered transmission line. Furthermore, simulations that Nobili et al. use to discredit wave-equation formulations of cochlear mechanics (i.e., cochlear responses to excitation at a point along the basilar membrane) are readily reproduced and interpreted using a simple superposition of forward- and backward-traveling waves. Nobili and coworkers’ critique of wave-equation formulations of cochlear mechanics thus appears to be without compelling foundation. Although the traveling-wave and hydrodynamic formulations impose strikingly disparate conceptual and computational frameworks, the two approaches ultimately describe the same underlying physics.


inner ear middle ear otoacoustic emissions cochlear mechanics