Science has found out why screams cut through to get our attention

Head coach Nathan Buckley of the Magpies during the round 14 AFL match between the Collingwood Magpies and the Hawthorn Hawks. Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Screams have a special acoustic element which make them attention grabbing in stresssful and dangerous situations, a study has found.

“Everybody screams and everybody has an intuition about what constitutes screams — that they are loud and high-pitched,” says David Poeppel, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science.

“But neither turns out to be quite correct. In fact, screams have their own acoustic niche separate from other sounds. While, like some sounds, they may be high-pitched and loud, screams are modulated in a particular way that sets them apart from the rest.”

The researchers discovered a special acoustic trait only exhibited by screams.

They have a something called roughness. This occurs when screams obtain a structure due to change of loudness or frequency. If these changes happen very quickly, the ear is no longer able to break down these changes.

“As a whole, our findings show that screams occupy a privileged acoustic niche that ensures their biological and ultimately social efficiency – we use them only when we need them,” says Poeppel.

The research is published in the journal Current Biology by an international team of neuroscientists from the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, New York University and the University of Geneva.

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