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Top o' the Mornin' to Ya

This month we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, that late winter holiday when there’s plenty of wearin’ of the green and drinkin’ of the beer! Like most American holidays, it’s one of good cheer. People clad in green down hefty portions of corned beef and cabbage and hoist brimming mugs of green Guinness. Everyone is Irish on March 17.

Cities and towns all across the country celebrate all things Irish in their own special ways. Some cities dye their rivers green—Chicago and San Antonio for two—pub crawls abound, and for the health conscious there are usually St. Patty’s Day 5K runs. The common denominator of all these celebrations, however, is the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Even the smallest towns hold parades, complete with a grand marshal, Irish step dancers, school bands, leprechaun and shamrock balloons, Irish-themed floats, and a St. Patrick’s Day staple: bag pipers.   

I love these celebrations, and I do get into the spirit. But I must confess, I’ve never enjoyed listening to bag pipes. The sound they produce reminds me of wailing and whining. They don’t sound at all like music to my ears. In fact, when I hear them, I wince. My sister on the other hand finds their sound pleasing, almost enchanting. I began to wonder why some people like the unique sound of bag pipes and others don’t. I did some research and found there is in fact a scientific reason.

Researchers at Newcastle University in England say that being annoyed by certain sounds comes from high levels of activity between two regions of the brain. One is the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the other is the auditory cortex, a region that processes sound. They found a link between these two regions by using fMRI scans to see what happens when people are exposed to annoying sounds. Their study included 13 participants who were asked to listen to 74 different sounds and rate them based on the degree of unpleasantness. Out of the 74 sounds, "knife on a bottle" was rated the worst sound.

The researchers studied the effects of the sounds on the brain and found that activity in the amygdala and the auditory cortex were directly related to the unpleasantness of a sound, meaning nasty sounds increased activity in these regions. They found when we hear a knife scraping a bottle, the emotional part of the brain takes over and enhances the sound making it really unpleasant. “It appears there is something very primitive kicking in,” says Dr. Sukhbinder Kuma, a researcher at Newcastle. “It's a possible distress signal from the amygdala to the auditory cortex.” On the other hand, the sound of bubbling water does not increase the activity in the amygdala, making it more soothing. The study also found sounds that have a frequency range of around 2,000 to 5,000 Hz were considered unpleasant. "This is the frequency range where our ears are most sensitive. Although there's still much debate as to why, it’s important to note that that range includes sounds of screams, which we find intrinsically unpleasant," Dr. Kumar says. 

Although it is a very small study, the research may help find treatments for conditions that increase people's reaction to sounds, such as hyperacusis, a disorder in which a person has an intolerance for ordinary environmental sounds like jingling coins or running water. The researchers say this work might also be a new inroad into autism and disorders like tinnitus and migraine in which there seems to be heightened perception of the unpleasant aspects of sounds.

I hope you enjoyed St. Patty’s Day 2022. Next year when the bag pipers come down the street, simply put your fingers in your ears till they pass by. Then explain to your friends that there’s a solid scientific reason you don’t enjoy them and go back to that beer (or green milkshake) you were drinking. And may you have the Luck o’ the Irish!