Welcome to the newest edition of The Why. “Why are screams scary?” Good question. Timely too. (Besides, it beats answering some of the scary questions about unusual intimate activities that would get us in trouble with Google. Seriously? For the record, we don’t know the difference between The Bullwinkle and Bullwinkle J. Moose, mmmkay?)
So why are screams scary? Well, terror-filled screams are something that science hasn’t really researched much in the past. More recently, however, a team of researchers from New York University has come across a specific reason why screams are so scary. They have some unique properties.
Some folks think screams are scary because they’re loud and high-pitched. But it’s not that simple. Neuroscientist David Poeppel of New York University confirms this nothing that “lots of other things are loud and high-pitched” and we don’t find them scary.
Our guest speaker, Sarah C. P. Williams, contributor to ScienceMag notes that Poeppel and his team used “a third level of analysis that has only recently been applied to sounds.” It’s known as “a modulation power spectrum.”
By using this method of analysis on “both normal speech and screams of fear or terror collected from movies, YouTube videos, and volunteers in the lab”, they were able to learn why screams are scary. She reports that while “typical speech changes less than 5 hertz per second—meaning it stays around the same volume—the loudness of screams quickly fluctuates by anywhere from 30 to 150 hertz per second. The fluctuations give the sound a quality dubbed ‘roughness’ that isn’t found in any other human speech—whether male, female, or child.”
Williams also confirms that this new study revealed that “screams that were rougher more effectively activated the amygdala, where the brain’s ‘fear circuits’ live. Most other sounds, by comparison, initially activate only the auditory cortex of the brain.”
Poeppel concluded that they are scary because “the brain is uniquely tuned to screams.”
Why are screams scary? Now you know.
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