Like many of the other living beings on Earth, we rely on our senses to function in the world. And even though we humans have the five major senses, there could be as many as 21. Nevertheless, the sense of sound is one of the major ones, and it helps us pick up on vibrations (oscillating pressure waves) traveling through a medium –usually the air – and then converting them into something different: sound.
This sense lets us listen to music, have verbal conversations, or even hear an incoming threat, like a lion running through the underbrush towards us. The way these vibrations are turned into actual sound inside our heads is amazing, to say the least, and so is the reason for why we find some of them pleasurable… while others truly annoying.
10. Nails dragging on Chalkboard
Let’s start off this list with a particularly nasty one: fingernails dragging on a chalkboard. Among the many sounds people find the most annoying, scratching one’s fingernails on a piece of chalkboard is among the worst. But why? Why do we find this particular sound so hard to bear? This is a question that apparently has boggled some scientist’s minds as well, since in 2011 they made a study on it. First off, it turns out that the sound produced by nails on chalkboard falls within the band of mid-range frequencies, somewhere in between 2,000 to 5,000 Hz. This frequency is actually enhanced by the human ear because of its shape, and some believe it has something to do with our evolution. In fact, primate warning calls fall within this frequency range, and this may be the reason we hear these sounds louder than others. However, this connection is still widely debated.
Nevertheless, this still doesn’t account for why it’s actually so annoying. According to the previously mentioned study, it turns out that context plays an important role here. Two dozen participants were hooked up to a series of monitors that analyzed their heart rate, electrodermal activity, and sweating rate, and were then exposed to a series of irritating sounds. They were then asked to rate the scale of unpleasantness for each of them. But while half of the volunteers were told the exact source of each sound, the other half was told that unpleasant noises were part of some sort of art piece. And even though their physical responses were the same – elevated heart rate, sweating palms, and the like – the people who were told the true origins of the sounds rated them more annoying than those who believed them to be part of a contemporary musical piece. So, as it turns out, it’s not necessarily the sound itself we hate, but rather what our mind’s eye sees when it hears it: fingernails dragging on the chalkboard. Other scraping noises like power or dental drills, a knife against a glass, a fork against a plate or teeth, or rubbing Styrofoam also fall in this category.
9. Noisy Chewing
Ever been around people who were chewing their food so loudly and messily that you felt the urge to punch them? If you haven’t, then call yourself lucky. We’re talking from experience here. And you probably heard it, too, but didn’t notice. If that’s the case, then you’re part of the fortunate few who’re not suffering from a mild form of misophonia, or “hatred of sound”. The term itself was coined back in the early 2000s when a group of researchers was studying ear ringing. But misophonia doesn’t only account for ear ringing, but for the discomfort some people feel for all sorts of human-made sounds like chewing, breathing heavily, finger tapping, yawning, cracking knuckles, snoring, or even whistling. As it turns out, the repetitive nature of the sound is partially to blame here. And surprisingly enough, misophonia can also extend to things like leg fidgeting, which has nothing to do with sound.
The mild reactions people have when they’re exposed to these sounds are: anxiety, disgust, feeling uncomfortable, or the urge to get away. But if the reactions are more severe, like with some people, then they can experience rage, anger, deep hatred, panic, a strong desire to kill that person, or even suicidal thoughts. And as you can imagine, these people have a tremendously hard time fitting into society. They tend to avoid these sorts of encounters as much as possible by either eating alone, or even isolating themselves completely. Though not fully understood or even thoroughly analyzed, misophonia in its mild form is known to affect a large number of the population worldwide and its symptoms are often connected to anxiety, depression, or OCD. What actually causes it, however, is still largely a mystery, but doctors believe it’s part physical and part mental. It usually kicks in at around the age of 9 to 13 and is more common in girls. But whether misophonia is an actual disorder, or just a side effect of anxiety or OCD, is still debated.
8. Earworms (The Music Stuck in our Heads)
Have you ever found yourself singing the same tune in your head over and over again like a broken record? Of course you have. Everyone has. And what’s worse is that it’s not even the whole song; it’s just a small part of it in an endless repeating loop, right? These annoying little buggers are what’s known as earworms, and have been “plaguing” humanity for a very long time. The reasons for them are fairly complex, but involve a combination of things like stress, altered emotional states, the mind wandering, and word memory association. That’s why you sometimes start singing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in your head the moment you hear someone say the word “Mama”. What’s interesting about these earworms, however, is that about 90% of people experience them at least once a week, while a quarter have them have it happen several times a day. And they often times start when we’re doing menial or repetitive tasks which don’t need much of our attention.
By the way, Bohemian Rhapsody is totally stuck in your head now, isn’t it. Anyway…
Choruses make great earworms since they’re usually what we remember from a song. And because we don’t know the rest of it, we tend to repeat that chorus over and over and over again, trying to find an eventual end that doesn’t really exist in our memory. Earworms can also be characterized as involuntary auditory imagination to some degree. But as common as they are, scientists haven’t yet figured out whether they’re just a by-product of our resting mind, or if they have a more important role to play. Nevertheless, researchers discovered that if you preoccupy yourself with a verbal task like doing anagrams or reading a captivating novel, these earworms tend to go away. The key is to find a task that’s engaging enough, but not too complicated either, because then your mind starts wandering again.
7. Baby Crying
There is a reason there almost always seems to be a baby crying on a plane every time you’re on one. It’s because you’re hardwired to hear them, no matter what. All of us are. And as it turns out, the sound of a baby crying captures our attention more so than any other sound in the world. In a study carried out by researchers from Oxford, it was revealed that the sound of a crying baby is immediately followed by an intense reaction in our brains, especially in the regions in charge of emotional processing, speech, the fight-or-flight response, as well as the reward centers for various senses. The reaction to this particular sound is so fast that the brain doesn’t even have to fully recognize it for what it is before it marks it as highly important.
All of the volunteers who took part in this study were exposed to a series of sounds, including adults crying, or various animals being in pain or distress, but none triggered such an intense and immediate reaction like a crying baby did. What’s more, none of the 28 volunteers were parents or had any experience in taking care of infants whatsoever. This means that everyone is made to react to the sound of a crying baby, regardless of whether they are its parents or not. And what’s even more interesting is the fact that, immediately after hearing it, people get a boost in overall physical performance and reflexes, which might more easily facilitate care-giving behavior. So, when you’re stuck on a plane with a crying baby, you’re involuntarily flung into alert mode. And since you’re not the parent and you can’t do anything about the crying, you become frustrated and irritated as a result.
Coming into existence sometime around 1910, the vuvuzela is the creation of Isaiah Shembe, the self-proclaimed prophet and founder of the Nazareth Baptist Church in South Africa. The instrument was originally made out of cane wood, and later metal, and used as a religious instrument played in harmony alongside African drums during church ceremonies. But as the numbers of the church followers grew, the vuvuzela got around enough that by the 1980s it appeared during soccer (football) matches in South Africa. By the 1990s, mass production of plastic vuvuzelas flooded onto the South African market, to the point where they become an integral part for the choreography and general atmosphere of the sport in the country. Then, during the 2010 FIFA World Cup held in South Africa, the vuvuzela spread like wildfire all around the globe.
Being a novelty among foreign fans, and because of the loud noise it produced, the vuvuzela soon spread to other sports as well. But its newly acquired fame was short lived. It’s one thing for a professional trumpeter to play it while accompanied by drums or other instruments, and another when hundreds or even thousands of soccer fans use it at the stadium. Besides being so loud that some spectators ended up suffering from temporary hearing loss, the sound made by so many vuvuzelas, all played at different times and varying frequencies, is reminiscent of an unimaginably large swarm of angry wasps. The sound is so annoying that it can even affect your TV viewing experience. What’s more, the fact that you can’t control the source of the noise makes it even worse. Nevertheless, FIFA banned them during the following World Cup in Brazil.
Are you one of those people who starts feeling sick when you see someone else getting sick? Or for that matter, when you hear someone heaving, or even when just by talking about it? Well, if that’s the case, then we have some good news and some bad news for you. Let’s start with the bad news first. There simply isn’t anything you can do about it. Period. Your brain is made this way and there’s nothing that can change that. But here comes the good part: You are an empathic person. You are the sort of person who has the ability to feel what others near you are feeling, and you empathize with them. You are what some call a good friend or partner. Your brain has developed some “mirror neurons” which make you copy what others are doing or feeling around you.
And because of these mirror neurons, you can also consider yourself an evolved human being – literally. Believe it or not, this annoying thing of feeling sick when others around you are, too, might just save your life one day. Some scientists have come to the conclusion that this mirroring is an evolutionary trait for humans as communal creatures. Back in prehistoric times, when humans were living in small communities of maybe a few dozen individuals, if one or more of them were throwing up, it probably meant that they ate spoiled food or something poisoned, and it was quite possible that all of them did. So, this mirroring was, in fact, a preemptive measure for expelling any potential poison even before its effects began to kick in.
4. Other People Arguing
With TV shows like Jerry Springer and, yes, the recent presidential elections, it would seem that people actually thrive on others bickering, and by no means find them annoying. But it’s true, and the difference here is on where you, the observer, are situated in regards to the argument. If you’re on your couch at home watching TV, it’s quite entertaining to look at others fighting over whatever subject. It probably even makes you feel a tiny bit better about yourself while hiding behind the anonymity of the TV. But if you’re in the kitchen and your roommates start arguing about whose turn it is to do the dishes, or who left the toilet seat up, it’s quite uncomfortable being there in the same room with them. Not only could you be put on the spot in stating your opinion, or even take a side – god forbid – but the fact of the matter is that you also care about these people… to a certain degree, at least. The subject of the argument also plays an important role, in whether you’re interested in it or not, or whether you actually want to be a part of it in the first place.
But the main reason we find these intimate arguments so annoying and uncomfortable draws its roots from our childhoods and how our parents handled their arguments around the house. Children of all ages, as young as one year old up to when they’re well into their teens, are highly susceptible to their parents’ fights. And it isn’t even the argument itself that’s the problem, but rather the outcome. For years, physiologists have analyzed the effects of family squabbles on children, and even though arguing is inevitable, it can also be productive. Children need to see their parents coming out of an argument better then when they got in. This way they learn the meaning of conflict resolution, acceptance, and compromise. If not, they will grow up living in fear of potential conflicts and will always try to avoid them as much as possible, even to a fault.
3. Telephone Chatter
Back in 1880, Mark Twain wrote an essay called “A Telephonic Conversation.” This was just four years after Alexander Graham Bell presented his invention for the world to see, and listen to. In this essay, Twain satirizes how one such conversation sounds to a third party, who is only able to hear half of the conversation. But what drove him to write the essay in the first place is the reason so many of us find it annoying even today. As it turns out, our brains have the habit of anticipating what’s going to happen. So, even if we’re aware of it or not, when we listen to someone talk, we’re not actually absorbing that information, per se, or preparing our answer, but rather we’re trying to figure out what that person wants to say next. It’s involuntary, and all of us do it.
This relates to the “theory of mind” idea, where we only have direct access to our own mind through introspection, and can relate to others by analogy and comparison. And we’re pretty good at it, too. There were even some people on variety shows who were repeating what others were saying almost as fast as those people were talking themselves. But if speech becomes unpredictable, with random words thrown in, then our brains have a hard time anticipating. And this is something that drives us crazy. This is also the reason for why we find one-sided conversations on the phone so annoying. We can’t predict what the person talking is going to say next.
2. Spitting, Coughing, Sniffling and, of Course, Farting
These sounds can all be classified as disgusting, or at least annoying, by pretty much anyone. And even though they can be seen as such by some, due to the previously mentioned misophonia, they can also be somewhat disturbing because of other reasons as well. First of all, there can be the case of some social factors coming into play here. For instance, people from the UK found them more annoying and disgusting than those living in South America, probably because cultural differences. Likewise, older people also found them more disgusting, hinting to the idea that they were more accustomed to not hearing these sounds in public as often. Or it could mean that their sex-drive has somewhat slowed down, which could also be the cause. Scientists are still debating the issue.
Another reason could be that these sounds represent bodily secretions and excretions. And these things are often associated with pathogens and disease, and might explain why people tend to feel disgust or even take evasive action when they hear them. In this study conducted by the University of Salford, it was shown that women of all ages found these sounds more disgusting than their male counterparts. This could be because, traditionally, they have the double role of both protecting themselves and their children. But again, they might find them so obnoxious because of social factors as well.
1. The Infamous Brown Note
We’ll go hypothetical with this last one by listening to the infamous Brown Note. Oh, uh… if you’re reading this, we hope it’s on your phone, on the toilet… just as a precaution.
This is a particular low sound frequency somewhere in between 5 to 9 Hz, which is below what a human can actually hear. But if the sound is loud enough, it can be felt in the body as a vibration. And as its name suggests, this particular frequency is said to make people poop their pants. That would be quite annoying, right? The whole story behind the Brown Note came with the Republic XF-84H “Thunderscreech” airplane in 1955. This was an experimental aircraft powered by a turbine engine and a supersonic propeller. But since this propeller was giving out some 900 sonic boom blasts every minute, even when idling on the ground, it reportedly caused nausea, severe headaches, and maybe even instant bowel movements for the people around. The project was discontinued as some crew members were seriously injured by the shockwaves. The “Thunderscreech” was quite possibly the loudest airplane ever built, with people hearing it from some 25 miles away.
Anyway, hearing of the possible nasty effects it had, countless experiments with low frequencies were performed over the years, but with no “brown” results reported. Even NASA looked into it as they feared that astronauts would possibly need a change of suits after liftoff into space. Nevertheless, the urban myth behind the Brown Note was born (and featured prominently on a memorable episode of South Park). In 2005, Mythbusters had a go at it by trying to make Adam Savage go number two in front of everyone. But besides feeling like someone was playing the drums on his chest, nothing messy happened. Now, maybe the exact conditions produced by the supersonic aircraft weren’t properly simulated and the Brown frequency does exist, however slim the chances may be. But if it actually exists and someone decides to commercialize it somehow, can you imagine what a kid could do with it in church on Sunday?