The Real Reason Not Everyone Can Wiggle Their Ears

Wiggling your ears is the classic party trick. It's lowkey, it always gets a laugh, and it's cute in its own odd little way. Unfortunately it is also a rare talent. So rare that only an estimated 10 to 20% of people have the skill, according to Glamour. But why do few people have the ability?

Many people think that if they try hard enough, they too can learn to wiggle their ears. A whole generation of children raised on the '90s remake of "The Little Rascals" spent hours trying to get their earlobes to flutter like Alfalfa's. But all that practice was in vain. As the New York Times explains, ear wiggling is an inherited trait. Practicing can improve the ability, but certain genetic factors have to be in place first. 

Researchers aren't exactly sure how the ability is passed down. They know it's not inherited as directly as traits like hair and eye color. Beyond that, however, the specifics are vague. All they know for certain is that being able to wiggle your ears is actually a holdover trait our species lost as we evolved over the centuries.

Like the animals do

Cats and dogs are well-known for being able to swivel their ears toward sudden sounds. It turns out that humans once had the same ability. A 2015 study in the journal Psychophysiology reported the existence of a vestigial nervous system in our ears. Including such things as the occasional small tail or extra finger, vestigial features once served a purpose that humans have since evolved past the need for (via Britannica).

According to the report, people who can wiggle their ears have a more active vestigial nervous system than people who cannot. Even in people with weaker vestigial systems, shifting the eyes from side to side created a small electric response in the system. A sudden noise behind either ear had the same effect, leading researchers to believe that, at one point, the human ear could turn toward sound, just like those of cats and dogs.

We no longer have this ability, just like we no longer have tails and our brains have evolved past the functions of our long-ago ancestors. But traces those ancestors live on in vestigial organs and digits that still occasionally appear today. And, it turns out, they live on in that quirky little ear wiggle so many people have tried to replicate.