The Hum: A Worldwide Phenomenon That's Driving People Insane

Thursday, 07 August 2014 - 11:26AM
Thursday, 07 August 2014 - 11:26AM

For perhaps as long as 70 years, individuals have heard a persistent, low-frequency sound that others cannot hear and that refuses to abate, even with the use of earplugs. It has taken on many names depending on its location: the Taos Hum, the Kokomo Hum, the Bristol Hum, and the Bondi Hum, to name a few of the most publicized cases. To this day, it is unknown whether this sound actually exists or not, but it has indisputably affected thousands of people and has been linked to at least three suicides.


The Hum has consistently been described as sounding like a Diesel engine, and accounts have detailed instances in which other potential causes were ruled out, such as traffic, household appliances, or other mechanical devices. A study from the Taos Hum data found that between 2% and 11% of the population of a Hum-affected area can hear the sound, most of whom are between the ages of 55 and 70. Cases have been reported all over the world, but are particularly concentrated in the U.S. and Europe.


The phenomenon is so widespread, there is even a 'World Hum Map and Database', which provides the opportunity for "hearers" to log their location when they hear the hum online for the creation of a worldwide map.


[Credit: The Hum]


There are also many re-creations of the Hum on the internet. One Youtube user, who claims that the Hum occurs more frequently near sunspots, created this recording:


[Credit: resuocs99]


One common thread among many of the reports is psychological distress, even despair. "It's a kind of torture; sometimes, you just want to scream," said retiree Katie Jacques of Leeds, England. "It has a rhythm to it - it goes up and down. It sounds almost like a diesel car idling in the distance and you want to go and ask somebody to switch the engine off - and you can't."


"It's worst at night," Jacques said. "It's hard to get off to sleep because I hear this throbbing sound in the background … You're tossing and turning, and you get more and more agitated about it."


Sufferers have generally reported hearing the Hum indoors, usually in a specific location, like their home. They usually have perfectly normal hearing otherwise, and in many cases have had conditions like tinnitus definitively ruled out. Researchers have also found that the noise is often louder at night, and that it's more common in suburban or rural areas (but both of these trends may just be the result of a quieter environment).


Many explanations for the Hum have been proposed, and in some cases confirmed. The West Seattle Hum was caused by a vacuum pump used to offload cargo from ships, The Wellington Hum was caused by a Diesel generator on a ship, the Kokomo Hum was caused by tones coming from two different industrial plants, the Bristol hum was caused by traffic and factories, and a Hum reported in Hawaii was caused by volcanic activity. But in many other cases, no explanation could be found, and attempts to pick up the sound using electronic microphones have been futile. In these cases, dark, elaborate conspiracy theories arise, including UFOs, submarine communication devices, secret military activity, and sinister psychological tests conducted by the government. 


A Cambridge doctor named David Baguley believes he has a psychological explanation, but it doesn't involve government conspiracies. "People do come up with some strongly constructed, sometimes strange theories," he said, but he asserts that the real explanation is much more banal: the sufferers' hearing has become oversensitive. He explains that the human body has defense mechanisms that cause us to be more hyper-aware of sounds in times of stress, making that sound seem louder than it is. "If you're sitting by a table waiting for exam results and the phone rings you jump out of your skin. Waiting for a teenager to come home from a party - the key in the door sounds really loud. Your internal gain is sensitised."


He postulates that hearers may have just become overly focused on an innocuous background noise: "It becomes a vicious cycle. The more people focus on the noise, the more anxious and fearful they get, the more the body responds by amplifying the sound, and that causes even more upset and distress."


The Hum also plays a significant role in popular culture. It was featured in an X-Files episode featuring a pre-fame Bryan Cranston in which the sound originated from U.S. Navy radio waves. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan wrote the episode, and Cranston's performance inspired his casting as the iconic Walter White.

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