Surprising Benefits of the Primal Scream

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Photo source: Chris/flickr

I hear a lot of crying these days. In fact, playing mom to a 1-year-old and a 2-year-old doesn’t leave much room for not crying time.

Over the past few years, I’ve adopted multiple strategies to deal with screaming and wailing. Sure, like any mother, I first try food, comfort, diaper changes or entertainment. But more often than I’d like, it doesn’t work. Sometimes babies just gotta cry, is what I’m told.

In such cases, I turn inward, using a variety of strategies in a desperate attempt to reach my happy place: Marathon yoga sessions. Really loud tranquil music (oxymoron?). Eating my feelings.

But it’s not always possible to work through the pain associated with listening to your baby wail, and to be honest, sometimes my life just feels like a horror movie.

Which, I learned recently, may be exactly what Nature intended.

A new study entitled “Human Screams Occupy a Privileged Niche in the Communication Soundscape” finds that screams hold a dark and special place in the human psyche.

"Screams occupy their own little patch of the soundscape that doesn't seem to be used for other things," David Poeppel, professor of psychology and neuroscience at New York University, told NPR. They are uniquely modulated to trigger the holy-crap-I’m-afraid circuit in our brains (a technical term), which is why they’re so impossible to ignore.

This characteristic likely stems from roughness, or the tendency to vary in volume at a rapid rate. Whereas a speaking voice varies four or five times a second, the study found, a scream may vary hundreds.

Roughness is a quality shared by alarms and sirens, which explains their equally obnoxious and fear-inducing effects. Interestingly, it is not shared by other high-pitched noises, such as a soprano voice.

This “rough” quality gets our attention right away, according to responses in the amygdala captured by functional MRI. That’s why Zen eludes me while my babies cry, and why even the sound of other people’s sobbing children tends to get under our skin (think airplane rides).

And now I realize: This is what the babies want.

Or, more accurately, this is what our genes want for our babies: the ability to instantly capture a parent’s attention. DEFCON 1-style shrieks are an infant’s best chance at getting what it needs in a world that used to be a lot meaner than it is now. 

So good for you, babies. But I still don’t have to be happy about it

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