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The Screaming Brain

July 17, 2015

What qualities make screams so scary?

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (host):

1A property called roughness gives human screams their fear-inducing quality Luc Amal

A property called roughness gives human screams their fear-inducing quality. (Luc Amal)

The science of screams. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

What makes this scream lame:

[scream #1]

…and this one convincing?

[scream #2]

In the journal Current Biology, NYU neuroscientist David Poeppel and his colleagues report that while both are the same pitch and loudness, the blood-curdling scream has a quality called “roughness”.

DAVID POEPPEL (New York University):

One clear difference is you go “ahhh” or you go “aaahhhh.”

HIRSHON:

He says rough sounds like that consist of many spikes of sound per second and this quality activates the brain’s primitive fear center.

POEPPEL:

You can show that the more roughness a sound has, the scarier it’s rated.

HIRSHON:

The study looked at both adult vocalizations and artificial alarms. Next up for the team, perhaps the most ear-splitting, nerve-jangling sound of them all:

[baby scream]

The cry of the baby. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Read about the original research