This morning after Brendan left – very early – to take the first written exam in his series of maturité exams, I decided to be really decadent and go back to bed for a few minutes. Marc was in the bathroom getting ready for his day –  humming and humming and humming.

No recognizable tune, just a series of little contented-sounding hums.

It reminded me of a passage I read yesterday in What I Loved” by Siri Hustvedt.

“During her fourth month, Erica started humming, and she hummed until our son was born. She hummed at breakfast. She hummed on her way out the door in the morning. She hummed at her desk while she worked on hter “Three Dialogues” paper. […] The humming drove me crazy, but I strove to be tolerant. When I asked her to stop, she would always look up at me with startled eyes and say, “Was I humming?” 

I wondered if Marc realized he was humming. I thought about his dad, who also hums incessantly, particularly when he’s working on equations or reading the paper. Maybe it’s genetic?

When I finally got up, I decided to put my sophisticated research skills (Google) to work. I got a lot about hummingbirds, but not much of substance about human humming. I did learn a few things:

  • Humming while working helps you focus on what you’re doing. People with attention problems hum more than others.
  • Yogis often hum as they exhale to help them focus their attention.
  • Humming almost never bothers the person humming, and almost always bothers everybody else.
  • According to an article in Psychology Today, humming a happy tune can improve your mood.
  • The same article claims it can help clear out your sinuses. When you hum, since your mouth is closed, all those vibrations just rattle around beneficially in your cranial cavities.
  • Autistic and Asperger’s people tend to hum. Schizophrenics use humming to drown out their inner voices.
  • People often hum when they’re feeling relaxed or happy. Like Erica in the story above, they frequently  don’t even realize they’re doing it.
  • On her blog, one woman outlined how she used humming as a strategy to restrain herself from physically attacking her teenaged daughter. It calmed her down and drowned out whatever her daughter was saying.
  • Some scientists think humming serves an evolutionary purpose. Much like chickens who cluck pointlessly as they wander around the barnyard, humming pointlessly is a sign that all is well. If you sensed a threat, you would stop humming, and those around you would notice the lack of noise and go on the alert, and the whole troupe would be saved. (My personal theory is that they’d fall to their knees praising whatever caused you to finally shut up, and this was how religion got started.)

Where’s the physics? The neurology? The academic papers? For a behavior that is purportedly so beneficial and at the same time so annoying, it seems very strange that it hasn’t been studied in more depth. We don’t know if it’s genetic, if it affects men more than women, if it can be effectively addressed with drugs or psychotherapy. I admit I’m deeply disappointed in the lack of rigorous neurophysical attention paid to humming. It’s almost as if we hope it would just go away. Wait! We DO hope it will just go away!

I did uncover another interesting tidbit in my digging. At least if your husband or office mate is humming you can ask them to stop. But what about a hum with no discernable source? It turns out that this exists.

The Hum (with a capital H)  is a mysterious noise resembling the background roar of a diesel engine, heard by large groups of people in various places around the world. The “Taos Hum” in Taos, New Mexico, was described as more than just a noise – it was a pressure on the eardrums, and gave them headaches, insomnia and nosebleeds. The tricky thing is that not everybody hears it (or gets the bloody noses, presumably).

The group in Taos put up such a stink (they blamed it on the Department of Defense, naturally) that it was finally investigated by scientists from the University of New Mexico and Sandia National Laboratories. They couldn’t find a cause, and the hum was not detactable using very low frequency antennas or microphones. It remains a mystery; it was highlighted on “Unsolved Mysteries” and was #10 in a Livescience’s 2007 list of the “Top ten unexplained phenomena“.

One theory has it that people who hear the Hum aren’t experiencing tinnitus or psychoauditory hallucinations, but just have hearing that is very sensitive to low frequencies. From personal experience, I think this theory has merit.

My favorite local independent bookstore, BooksBooksBooks, which I babysit for its owner Matt from time to time, used to be located next to a fitness club, in a building that emitted a constant hum, a throbbing sort of low-frequency vibration, that drove me absolutely nuts. Matt said he didn’t even notice it. For the record, I’m hard of hearing in the mid-range frequencies. Every time Matt says anything in his soft voice I have to ask him to repeat himself. He probably thinks I am nuts. I like to think I’m just tuned to a different frequency. I am SO glad he moved the shop!

And then there’s the Earth itself, which is literally humming along as it spins through space:

Strange as it may seem, the Earth’s atmosphere continuously rings out in a chorus of frequencies just below the reach of the human ear. This phenomenon is expressed at the Earth’s surface as “infrasonic” waves – that is, waves with frequencies ranging 0.01–10 Hz – that are known to exist from acoustic recordings around the globe. Physics World.

Seems to me the Earth is doing it’s own cosmic yoga as it circles the sun: Ommmmm.

Do you hum? Do you know someone who does hum? Do you wish they would stop?

Image: Humdebugger, by Electroharmonix

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