Of the many annoying things we encounter on a regular basis, there are three or four sounds that rank at the top of our collective lists of the Most Annoying Things We Encounter On A Regular Basis. But there is likely a tie for first place in the Most Hated Sound of All category.
- Fingernails on a chalk board
- A fork scrapping on a plate
If you’re like most people, even reading the above list is enough to make you hate this post. If not, you may be one of the lucky few whose ear canal simply doesn't resonate at the same frequencies as the two awful examples listed above. Or maybe your amygdala (the most primitive area of your brain) is far too developed for your own good.
Michael Oehler, professor of media and music management at the University of Cologne in Germany, and his colleague Christoph Reuter of the University of Vienna spent a good part of 2011 subjecting volunteers to sounds to gauge their responses and find correlations between the sounds and our responses to them. What Oehler and Reuter found was that sounds in the frequency range between 2,000 and 4,000Hz are the ones that bother us the most. Of course, there are harmonics and other factors (more on the amygdala in a minute), but generally speaking, similarly produced sounds in lower (or higher) frequency ranges don't affect us in the same way.
For some other reason, the fundamentals and harmonics created by fingernails on a chalkboard or a fork scrapping on a plate make us want to smack teddy bears and otherwise throw tantrums. However, 3 kHz is also within the frequency range of an awful lot of musical instruments, and when played correctly, all of them sound pleasing to us. So, what's the deal?
Is it possible that our ear canals developed to resonate at particular frequencies to excite our amygdalae as quickly and empathically as possible? And if so, why? And what does that have to do with why we hate those sounds so much?
Our amygdala processes the formation of emotional event memories, and to all of you who took Psych 101, it's also the place where the FFF responses start (look it up, even though it's from science, FFF is an R-rated concept). It seems the frequencies generated by things like fingernails on chalkboards and the like excite the connections between our auditory cortex and our amygdalae faster and more emphatically than the sounds emitted by your 5th grader's recorder, even though that noise probably currently ranks as your most annoying.