Amid the din of a noisy world, take the time to find inner tone

OK, here is an experiment that even a layman can do at home. You will have to start by taking the ear buds out. It’s only for a few seconds, so don’t get an anxiety attack. There. Now listen closely because this is the hard part. Is it quiet? It hardly ever is. If it isn’t quiet, I am afraid you will have to postpone the experiment until you can find a quiet place. That’s another hard part. You can put your ear buds back in for now. 

If it is quiet, don’t be alarmed. Quiet is actually, more or less, the normal condition although it may seem strange to you at first. Millions of people have lived their whole lives in quiet and still managed to invent and build our modern, noisy world. It is actually rumored that many humans used to enjoy the quiet. Now proceed to the next step. 

Simply shake your head vigorously from side to side like you were saying an emphatic, “No.” Don’t shake it too far to each side but just a short, vigorous repetitive, motion. A 600 degrees/sec angular velocity should be good. There! Did you hear a quiet, high-pitched tone in your ear. My tone is a G. What’s yours? Cool, huh? 

Well, not exactly. Some people think hearing the ringing is abnormal. Some say only a small proportion of people in the world can hear this tone upon shaking their heads. I guess that’s what abnormal means. However, I don’t think anyone has gone around the world asking people to shake their heads to see if they hear things. 

I prefer to think of the ability to hear these tones as something special. Geniuses are abnormal too, you know. Anyway, if this ability to hear tones when shaking one’s head is special, then that makes me special, doesn’t it? I think it’s sort of like being a “Star-bellied Sneetch,” for those of you who read classical literature. 

If you hear these tones, you may have a form of tinnitus called, appropriately, “Head Shaking Tinnitus” (HST). Scientists are so good at coming up with creative new names, don’t you think? I mean they could have settled for something bland and prosaic like Joe or Susan, the way they do hurricanes. 

Tinnitus is a phenomenon where people hear sound in the absence of any sound. Sometimes that’s called a hallucination. Other times it’s called tinnitus. In some folks the sounds are always present and can be severely distracting and disabling. In other people, the sounds are intermittent and triggered by sight, touch, or jaw or neck movement.

Tinnitus can have numerous causes: neurological damage, ear infections, or medications among them. However, the most common cause seems to be noise-induced hearing loss. That is obviously unrelated to my problem because I never listen to noise. I am too busy listening to music, with ear buds, loud. 

No one seems to be very sure about what causes my HST tone. It may be due to abnormal, inner-ear, fluid movement. Others think it is a neurological abnormality.

My wife thinks I’m just crazy. One article I read seemed to think it might be due to “superior, semi-circular canal dehiscence.” I think dehiscence means something is coming apart. This is pretty typical of modern medicine. Physicians frequently tell you that the reason you aren’t functioning properly is because you are coming apart. 

In my case HST has proven surprisingly useful. In the first place, it has given me hours of entertainment while I sit around shaking my head. My wife thinks I shake my head because of the oft-remarked-about deteriorating condition of the world. I’m actually just listening to the little voices. HST is also useful in tuning my guitar. Lastly it has provided me with yet another column for you to shake your head over. What tone do you hear? Maybe we aren’t as rare as some people think.

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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