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The Screaming Brain

July 17, 2015

What qualities make screams so scary?



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.”


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


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


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