The exceptional sensitivity of mammalian hearing organ is attributed to an outer hair cell-mediated active process, where forces produced by sensory cells boost sound-induced vibrations, making soft sounds audible. This process is thought to be local, with each section of the hearing organ capable of amplifying sound-evoked movement, and nearly instantaneous, since amplification can work for sounds at frequencies up to 100 kHz in some species. To test these precepts, we developed a method for focally stimulating the living hearing organ with light. Light pulses caused intense and highly damped mechanical responses followed by traveling waves that developed with considerable delay. The delayed response was identical to movements evoked by click-like sounds. A physiologically based mathematical model shows that such waves engage the active process, enhancing hearing sensitivity. The experiments and the theoretical analysis show that the active process is neither local nor instantaneous, but requires mechanical waves traveling from the cochlear base toward its apex.