Am I Hearing Things?

I was sitting in my office and suddenly I heard some kind of musical interlude.  

“I must be hearing things,” I thought to myself. Then, as I always do when I think something weird might be happening in my head, I smiled and touched my face to make sure I wasn’t having a stroke.  Nope, both sides of my smile were lifted. Whew — no stroke.

I heard the music again and realized it was coming from the cubicle across from my office.  “Is that you?” I heard someone ask the person in the cube where the music had come from. When he said yes they said, “Oh good I thought I was hearing things.”

A minute or two later I heard another person say,  “Was there just music or am I hearing things?”

It got me thinking about why we all just assumed we were “hearing things” in our heads as opposed to “hearing things” that were actually there. Why did we all immediately go to the assumption that we were having auditory hallucinations instead of the much more likely possibility that there was actually something to hear?

I set out to find an explanation, but sadly google failed me on this.  I did, however, find some interesting information on how the brain essentially plays tricks on us and misinterprets silence as other sounds. That may well be part of the explanation.

None of us is ever in complete silence. No matter where you are there is noise.  It may be birds chirping or lights humming or traffic or running water…. there’s always something to hear. But when things are relatively quiet, we all have a tendency to start to hear other things.

This is also quite common with people who have lost their hearing; they hear phantom noises.

Research on “hearing things” has been done using something called “anechoic chambers”.  These are rooms that are intentionally designed to block out noise, often six walls thick with heavy duty sound insulation.  And even those are not totally quiet.  Complete absence of sound is just not possible – on this planet at least.

What researchers have discovered is that when people are in environments that are significantly more quiet than they are used to, it can be super disorienting.  A high percentage of research participants got pretty freaked out in the anechoic chambers, and almost all of them heard something unusual.

When we are in an environment that is much quieter than we are used to, sometimes we become aware of sounds we usually don’t hear, like the blood moving through our veins, our hearts beating, our intestines gurgling, or even nerve synapses firing in our ears. Side note: I had no idea nerve synapses made noises loud enough to actually hear with the human ear.

Sometimes when surrounded by a quieter environment our brains just make up a sound.  We may hear a song playing in our heads, often one we are familiar with.  We may hear voices or water rushing or a swarm of bugs or any number of things.

It may be that many of those sounds are constantly playing in the background of our brain, but we usually don’t discern them because we’re distracted by sounds coming from the things we can see and know for certain are there. It’s a little freaky to think about all the background noise in your head.  There’s already so much going on in my brain every day…

When we are alone and we also have other senses impaired like, for example, if we were in the dark or blindfolded, then the sounds can become more real.  Without another sense to help determine if the sounds are real, our brain can become confused. It becomes difficult to differentiate reality from our imagination. Or reality from brain memory fragments anyway.  Maybe this is why little kids think they hear monsters under the bed.

So why did I and two coworkers assume that the music we heard was an auditory hallucination?  The most logical explanation is that the sound was out of place, not something we typically hear in an office, so our experience with hearing things in our heads suggested it was not real.  

Whatever it was, the music was a little comic relief in a quiet morning.  I learned something new and I didn’t have a stroke.  A good morning… 😃

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  One thought on “Am I Hearing Things?

  1. August 2, 2019 at 12:02 pm

    I really enjoy your writing style and subject matter, Rose!


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