There's a kind of hum

Jenny Diski

There's a kind of hum all over the world. But only some people can hear it. It turns out not to be aliens – though I don't see why aliens wouldn't hum as they went about their world-conquering. Sometimes it's from local factories, electricity wires, fridges, or in my case a nearby airport that emits a thunderous roar when they're testing engines. All these things hum officially and it's not hard to find the source, not as hard as tracking down the humming aliens. But in two-thirds of cases, there's no obvious cause, and it has been decided that if you can still hear the hum you're suffering from vicious-cycle over-sensitive hearing. I think we may be on the verge of a new syndrome.

You focus on the noise and then you can hear nothing else, says Dr Baguley, head of audiology at Addenbrooke's. He's running a trial – funded by the Department for Environment and the Department of Health – using 'psychology and relaxation techniques to help sufferers become less agitated and distressed by the hum'. Now this suggests to me that there is after all a hum, in the first place to focus on and in the second place to become less agitated about. What's wrong with people is that they can hear it. The doc is actually getting them not to mind about the hum, which is one way of dealing with an environmental nuisance. Sort out the inconvenient humans who complain with CBT and self-hypnosis.

The odd thing is that I've just bought a quaint electronic device that drones out white noise (or, if I let it, the crash of the surf breaking on the shore) to cover the sound of the local drummer, barking dogs and screaming kids in nearby gardens. What it does, now I come to think of it, is create a hum and if it's loud enough it almost drowns out the other sounds. I'd advise those attending the trial to give it up and learn to love your hum – there might be much worse noises out there if you stop hearing it.


  • 22 May 2009 at 2:05pm
    Bungaroosh says:
    Behind the hum are other, higher-pitched hums which some ears can't hear. A couple of years ago there were stories in the press about how these frequencies were being used against, and by, the young:

    I too hear the hum and welcome it, particularly since seeing and believing the scene in the movie 'Children of Men' where Clive Owen's character is told: "You know that ringing in your ears? That's the sound of the ear cells dying, like their swan song. Once it's gone you'll never hear that frequency again. Enjoy it while it lasts."

  • 22 May 2009 at 4:18pm
    1Foyer says:
    As a friend of a long-time sufferer of 'head hum', I can only suggest more tact and consideration be applied to this subject. Both 'head hum' and tinnitus can cause great discomfort and frustration.
    Poor Katie Jacques. After a career in which naughty children were dealt with, where nuisances were fished out, quarantined and expelled, she now has to endure something she can’t even reach with a cotton wool bud.
    Attempting to 'learn to love your hum' would be like trying to love Gok Wan. Naturally irritating, overwhelming pervasive and just not cool.

  • 25 June 2009 at 8:30pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    "Learn to tune it out" sounds like what you'd do with tinnitus, which isn't a physically-produced sound (in the sense that anyone but you can hear it, even if they pressed their ear to your head) but has physical roots (there's something really going on, whatever your attitude to it is). The implication is that the low hum is a similar problem & ultimately physiological - but then, what & how, and why now? Maybe learning to tune it out is the best option. That or find the aliens. I'm sure there's a hum when the aliens appear, or don't quite appear, at the end of Ray Bradbury's story Zero Hour ("Peekaboo," said Mink.)

  • 29 July 2010 at 2:22pm
    hypnotherapy-sheffield says:
    If anyone is suffering from either "head-hum" or tinnitus I would strongly recommend looking into hypnotherapy as a potential way of tackling the issue. An off-shoot, which I'm still not sure about personally but has produced some great results, is EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) which claims to harness the body's energy centres and if these are tapped in a certain way along with a positive mantra then there can be some great results. Sounds crazy but I have seen it work for several people!

  • 26 November 2010 at 5:35am
    rpavellas says:
    I am aware of my tinnitus only when someone raises the subject, thank you very much (just some gentle sarcasm). I suspect everyone in noisy countries has a hearing deficit after a certain age. In one of the Stockholm subway stations that is among the noisiest (the train is on a curving track upon entering the station) only I and young children, mostly, bother to protect our ears. The others seem able even to continue to hold conversations on their mobilephones. How loud must these 'phones be? I am grateful my brain can somehow ignore the tinnitus, which masks sibilance in the speech of others and therefore I cannot hear it--I must interpolate for understanding. For me, it's just a matter of acceptance; there's no fighting it. For genetically induced hearing impairment, here's an article: