What’s the deal with ‘the hum?’
An estimated two percent of the world’s population claim to hear something called “the hum,” a persistent and maddening noise that, for the most part, is still a mystery.
On a beautiful October afternoon, a decade or so ago, I rode my bicycle up to the Cranberry Mountain Nature Center to expressly take in the autumn colors from the vantage point of the Scenic Highway.
I particularly enjoy riding down to Williams River from just beyond the Big Spruce Overlook because it offers several miles of downhill coasting with minimal effort. One is easily lost in the vivid scenery passing by as you speed down the steep mountain. However, once you get down to the river and turn around, time slows considerably as you pedal back up the mountain at a snail’s pace. At the same time, you are much more aware of your immediate surroundings, both visually and auditory.
Shortly into the grueling climb, I began hearing something quite melodic, but I could not tell where this strange music was coming from. I had not seen a car and was all alone on this particular stretch of the highway. Being inquisitive, I got off my bike and listened for a spell, looking up and around me.
Yep, there was most definitely a weird tune coming from my left.
I crossed the road, and the sound got louder as I neared the guardrail. I stepped over the guardrail, and the noise lessened as I walked in the other direction. The mystery tune had something to do with the guardrail – but how? I placed my hand on it and felt a slight vibration. When I put my ear to the metal rail, I immediately knew this was the source of the undulating sound.
It was only after some Internet research and talking to a musically inclined friend that I discovered that the unbroken length of the suspended metal rail was acting as a sort of violin string – I was hearing the sounds of harmonic vibration such as the “Wub Wub” sound made by vigorously flexing a long handsaw blade.
I share this story to make the point that it would be easy, even tempting, to assign a supernatural cause to something out of the ordinary. Good science requires that any inquiry into phenomena be approached with an open mind yet tempered with a healthy dose of skepticism. What I heard on that fall day while laboring up Black Mountain was not angels singing on high, but rather, a matter of physics, aka science.
Sense and sense-abilities; a brief primer on human perceptions
To set the stage for our discussion on the hum, we need to examine the range and limitations of human sensory abilities. We’ll also explore the plausibility of claims by those suffering from this mysterious noise that some say even resonates in their bones.
As humans, our sense of reality is dictated primarily by our sensory organs: our eyes, nose, ears, tongue and skin. Sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch are how most of us understand and navigate the world around us. Being humans with relatively large cerebral hemispheres, we can use non-sensory data to extrapolate some facets of our world outside our personal zone. For example, we cannot see or interact with dark matter and energy, yet we know it makes up a huge chunk of our universe.
However, a few of us have access to senses that fall far outside the realm of normal.
We are all not created equally regarding how we perceive our world. Most of us can see all the visible light spectrum, which only accounts for 0.0035% of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. However, due to a rare condition called congenital aphakia, some people are born without lenses in one or both eyes. These people can often see in the ultraviolet range, like some birds, insects and mammals, including dogs, cats and reindeer.
The painter Claude Monet had cataracts, which greatly affected his sense of color and ultimately was expressed in his art. Following surgery to remove his cataracts, he could see in the UV range, and this was reflected in his paintings as a bluish hue that did not exist in his earlier work.
There are those among us who have a condition called synesthesia. Fewer than five percent of people have this condition, and their reality is very different from ours; some would call it bizarre.
Synesthesia is defined as a “neurological condition in which information meant to stimulate one of your senses stimulates several of your senses simultaneously.”
Synesthetes, as those affected are called, may taste numbers and shapes, hear color, see sound, or even experience color rather than pain when injured. Imagine for a moment what it would be like to experience this fusion of senses; one might feel like Alice in Wonderland.
Humans who lack one sense can sometimes replace it with another.
A very few people who are born blind and have no concept of vision have learned to use echolocation to navigate their world, much like bats and porpoises. One such person, Daniel Kish, has mastered echolocation using rapid clicking sounds to the extent that he can ride a bike and even make accurate drawings of a location he has never visited.
Daniel and those he mentored in this technique have moved beyond braille and a white cane as a sensory substitute.
Another example of sensory perception far beyond the normal range is the autistic musical savant Derek Paravicini. Not only does he possess “perfect pitch,” but this genius can play, by ear, any piece of music he hears and, what’s more, he only has to listen to it once.
Derek, blind since birth, never touched a piano key until he was five years old. One day, he sat at the piano and started playing flawlessly any musical composition he had previously heard. His remarkable brain is the repository for thousands of music pieces, all without being able to read a single note of music.
(It is estimated that only one in 10,000 people possess perfect pitch.)
We will continue in the second part of this piece to explore the length and breadth of human senses while delving into the mystery of places throughout the world where some people can hear “the hum.” The intended takeaway from this article is that our experiential reality is only sometimes the objective reality. Therefore, we shouldn’t be too hasty in ridiculing those who claim to be sensing something we cannot personally sense.
We employ science to explore the potentiality and validity of such claims. And even then, many phenomena remain a mystery.
In the next edition of For Your Consideration, we’ll visit, among other locations, the enchanting town of Taos, New Mexico. A recent survey revealed that at least two percent of the residents have reported an irritating hum that started in the early 1990s and continues today. It is variously described as the constant sound of an idling diesel engine, while others think it sounds more like cicadas, and still others describe the hum as like a swarm of bees.
Furthermore, the Taos Hum is only one of many areas scattered around the globe that is home to a persistent and mysterious noise that causes an inability to sleep and focus for those who are plagued by it. We’ll also visit some locations where the mystery has been solved and put to bed. Likewise, we’ll examine and look at some intriguing and sometimes fanciful theories to explain the enigma of the hum.
Although we humans think of ourselves as being at the proverbial top of the food chain, in truth, our sensory abilities are puny compared to many other creatures that share our planet.
What do they know about the reality that surrounds us that we don’t?
Until the next time, only eat real food, get a little exercise, and be kind to yourself and others.