Science explains why screams make us cringe


Someone screams or a car alarm goes off. The hair on the back of your neck stands up. Your ears ache. You immediately start looking for a silent refuge.

Why do you react that way? Scientists now think they have an explanation for what it is about someone screaming that makes our brain think, ‘Something bad is happening. Let’s get out of here!’

In a study published Thursday in the journal Current Biology, a group of researchers at New York University, the University of Geneva and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Germany report that screams have a special quality called roughness. Simply put, roughness happens when the frequency or amplitude of a sound changes dramatically very quickly. (Frequency and amplitude are two defining characteristics of all kinds of waves, sound waves included.)

When this happens, “the ear is no longer able to ‘break down’ these temporal changes – such sounds are then perceived…

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