The science behind why we scream

What’s in a scream? This is a question many people have asked, and there is a science behind the way they sound. Some screams are playful, others urgent, while some instill fear in us. No two screams are exactly alike, and that’s one of the things that makes them so interesting. No matter what sort of scream you’re hearing, you will always know a scream when you hear one, and that’s what makes them so interesting.

But, screams are not necessarily what we might think they are, and that’s why it’s so important to look at the science behind them. If you want to learn more, then you should read on because we’re going to be getting our geek on. Join us for a closer look at the science behind a scream, and how we interpret the sounds we hear.

What people think

It’s interesting to know what the majority of us think about screams, and what we would define as a scream. For the most part, we would probably say that a scream is high and loud pitched. These are the properties that we feel best defines a scream, right? Well, not really. In fact, neuroscientist David Poeppel, of New York University, claims that both of those things are wrong. Poeppel has spent many years studying the subject and came to a surprising conclusion with his work.

The experiment

In 2015, Poeppel and his colleagues started to research and compile different sorts of screams, using clips from YouTube, along with human voices as well. Originally, they felt that it was volume and pitch that defined a scream, much like we all would. But, upon closer inspection, it turned out that this isn’t exactly the case. It is, in fact, an acoustic quality known as roughness that they all have in common. This is a property that can be found in all kinds of noises, and it’s very distinctive for our brains.


See, the roughness is actually a measure of how much the sound fluctuates by way of volume. So, regular human speech changes volume around 4 to 5 times per second, whereas with screams it’s anything between 30 and 150 times per second! This is probably the main reason why screams tend to be so attention grabbing. Further research was done on finding other sounds with a similar degree of roughness, and to test their impact on people. Poeppel determined that the sounds of alarms and sirens occupy the same space on the audible spectrum as screams, and effect your brain in a similar way.

Hijacking the brain

How it works is that the sound actually hijacks the brain, causing feelings of alarm or distress. The way it works is that, when listening to rough sounds, the blood in your brain is sent rushing to the part of your brain that deals with emotional reactions, and, the rougher the sound, the more activity produced. This is intriguing as it shows that the brain responds in a similar way to all rough sounds, and that’s one of the things that shows how the brain and body respond to screams.

As you can see, there is a science behind the way our brains process sound, and this is one of the things that makes screams so distinctive. We hear a scream, and our brain instantly gives us an emotional reaction – whether we want it to or not. But it would be interesting to see further research and find out about positive screams.