The Sound of Music: Infrasound and Humans

Student Contributor to Biology 103's picture

Have you ever watched that scene from [insert movie or discovery channel] where a bunch of elephants are standing together, going about their normal elephant activities, and then suddenly, they stop and run away together?  When I first saw this scene, I was puzzled as to why this happened.  It was quite strange to see these large but peaceful animals just instantaneously disperse for no good reason.  In actuality, however, the elephants did have a reason for running off.  They responded to a message sent to them by another elephant through infrasound. [1] Elephants are able to detect and send infrasound.  Humans, on the other hand, cannot pick up or produce infrasound the same way elephants can.  For any noise that is between the ranges of 20 to 20,000 Hz, we have no problem audibly hearing these sounds.  Anything that is higher or lower than that range will not be heard by humans.  Infrasound has a frequency that is below 20 Hz and usually, humans cannot detect audible infrasound. [2] However, although we cannot audibly hear infrasound, we are still able to feel the effects of this low frequency.  What are the impacts of infrasound on humans?  And how it is that if we are unable to hear it, it still has an impact on us?
 
Infrasound is found in two forms, it can be ‘man-made’ or created by ‘nature’.  Extreme examples human productions of infrasound include aircraft and fireworks.  The noise from factories and engines also attribute to making these low frequencies. [3] Natural productions of infrasound basically occur all the time.  Weather disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions emit infrasound.  Phenomena like meteor impacts and aurora also create this low frequency.  On a less extreme and more relatable scale, anyone who has ever been in a thunderstorm or very strong winds is likely to have experienced infrasound. [3] Instruments can also create these low frequencies.  Organs pipes and bass instruments can produce infrasound as well. [4] As mentioned before, elephants are able to create and detect infrasound.  They are the not the only species who have this trait.  Pigeons, squid and rhinos are just a few among the many other animals who can participate in infrasonic communications. [3] And although many animals can use infrasound to speak, humans still cannot communicate through these low vibrations.

In September 2002, ‘Soundless Music’ was conducted.  The live experiment was designed to see the psychological effects caused by infrasound.  Under a guise of a concert which played electronic sounds and deep bass sounds, an infrasound generator was also incorporated into the mix.  In the questionnaire audiences filled out, many of the responses expressed a strange experience.  Most reactions included anxiety, coldness, and tingling sensations. [3] Many people felt uncomfortable and experienced a deeper sensation of emotions. [5] ‘Soundless Music’ proved to the researchers that infrasound does indeed have an effect on humans, an effect that usually produces negative consequences.

The effects of infrasound are sometimes confused as an experience with the supernatural.  Some people are proposing that organ pipes are the cause for sensations caused by a ‘spiritual’ force (God) in churches and cathedrals. [4] Organ pipes produce infrasound and listening to the organ during a religious ceremony may cause the shivering, increasing heart rates and tingling feelings people experience.  From personal recollection, I get goose bumps when I listen to the organ.  I used to believe that these goose bumps were a result of my amazement by the sound, but now I know that there may be another reason besides just amazement.

Human ears are not made to detect anything that is higher or lower than the range mentioned above.  However, we still detect vibrations from infrasound as seen by the low frequencies that are resonated within the body.  Infrasound raises the pressure in the middle ear, the area where balance is regulated. [6] Exactly why infrasound still impacts us this way was a scientific answer I was unable to find.  An answer that I would like to have is that humans simply evolved away from infrasound.  Perhaps we had the genetics to use infrasound communications but we just did not need it and this trait dissolved with each passing generation.  In contrast to infrasound, ultrasound is the frequency above 20,000 Hz that is also inaudible to humans.  The same middle ear that controls balance also limits the hearing of the high-pitched sounds of ultrasound.  The middle ear is a filter that screens out ultrasound.  If ultrasound were to be sent into the mind without going through the middle ear, it would be heard.  Sometimes even, younger children are able to hear high-pitched noises that older people cannot hear. [7] So if we are able to audibly hear ultrasounds, perhaps at one point in time, humans were able to audibly hear infrasound as well.

Another proposal for why we are able to detect infrasound is because of its affiliation with dangerous weather patterns.  As other animals, such as elephants and birds, are able to detect when a storm is coming, maybe we are given the same trait as well.  But, because we so heavily rely on electronics and mechanical contraptions to tell us what the weather will be like, we do not use our infrasound detection trait. 

I find infrasound to be a fascinating phenomenon.  On some level, it represents many of those things that we cannot see impacting our lives, but it does cause profound experiences.  Infrasound is present in our everyday lives and like many of the other things that affect us, we do not know much about it.  The question that has yet to be answered is still why infrasound affects our bodies and further research should be done to find out.  Hopefully, with more time and research, science will be able to discover a story about infrasound that will answer more questions.


Links:
[1] http://physorg.com/printnews.php?newid=4211
[2] http://arts.guardian.co.uk/print/0,,4669399-110760,00.html
[3] http://spacedog.biz/infrasonic/background.htm
[4] http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/mpapps/pagetools/print/news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3087674.stm
[5] http://icliverpool.icnetwork.co.uk/0300whatson/0800events/tm_headline=soundless-concert-stirs-the-emotions%26method=full%26objectid=12647919%26page=2%26siteid=50061-name_page.html
[6] http://www.forteantimes.com/articles/153_sonicweapons.shtml
[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultrasound

Comments

Debbie 's picture

Help to stop person using infrasound on me

I finally figured through pain staking days of this torture I couldn't explain though knew it was upstairs neighbor doing something ( it was right after I complained about him making noise and stupidly let him know it was I making complaints-yet the innocent looking couple with infant are convincing too much for anyone to even believe that after four years of no problems I had there that they could be responsible for anything bad and therefore of course I looked quite insane), I finally figured through denomination and every single symptom I had was infrasound harassment or more like torture, that it was exactely this they were doing to me. No one not even best friend believed me. So I stayed at hotel - which they found me at - had to move rooms several times they still found me. Moved across town they have found me again. NOONE believes me. I am scared and I don't know what to do. I need someone to please help me. I can't take this pain. Please I am a good person and all I want is to be left alone to live my life I care not to involve myself with these people. I just want them to stop. Please can someone help me!!! Please!!

Serendip Visitor's picture

If you read this article.......

You should probably practice meditation. MER-KA-BAH

M's picture

Infrasound and Anxiety.-

While this is an old article, i recently found it due to many of questions i now have of my own.

I first noticed the word Infrasound when watching a documentary about ghosts. (no i dont believe in ghost, but these things fascinates me. )
But in the documentary they said something that caught my attention-
Infrasound might cause Anxiety.
WELL HELLO!

Being that i have been suffering from anxiety for about 7 years now, i couldnt help but look it up.
Now.... Im not saying that infrasound is a direct cause for anxiety (the medical term)-
BUT. . .
What if it is a factor to help sustaining the anxiety. Making it harder to shake off?
This is now a big question of mine. And reading your article just made me wanna dig deeper into this.

Thing is this-
For about as long as I have been experiencing anxiety, i have had tinnitus.... This made me wonder more. . .
I hate- like really hate HATE sitting in a room with no noise. . . Cause then i notice the tinnitus, and it makes feel like im gonna go crazy.
So for the past. . . Many years. . . I have been making sure there is some noise around me. Mostly the computers "brummin'" noise is enough to cover the tinnitus , otherwise the tv- or music is always playing. I cant sleep if there is no sound except my tinnitus.
Being a amateur musician, tinnitus is a nightmare. . .
Anyways.
What if my "cover" is actually just helping my anxiety standing strong?
In the end what is worse? The tinnitus or the cover.
I intend to find out.
Ill do my own tests from home and see how it effects my mood.
Maybe there is a factor here, that people have missed.

And of course. Im not claiming this is the "cause" of long-term anxiety, but again that it might aid it.

And if i yank all cords out of the walls tomorrow and feel great later that day, will it prove anything?
Maybe not. Cause we are all different.
Some are prone to start hearing voices.
Some grind their teeth when a brush wipes chalkboard.
Maybe there is a % of us people who are oversensitive to infresound.-

I stop here. You (article writer) might not even be present on this site anymore. But I thank you for the article.
And I will bookmark this page in case someone finds any interest in my words.

Have it the best -
M.

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