Seashells: An Ocean of Sound
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Theories include the ever popular ocean notion and also one that suggests that the sound is that of the blood vessels in one's ear. The ocean theory is closer to the truth but that depends on location.
When a seashell is held up to the ear what you hear is the world augmented by the shape and thickness of the shell. It's basically all of the outside noise muffled and echoed many times. If your on the beach with a shell to your ear chances are you will hear the ocean.
In the past, conch shells have been used as hearing aids. With two open ends, the sound just funnels into the ear.
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