The Mystery Of The Taos Hum Of New Mexico

Imagine hearing a persistent hum. You can't get it out of your head, and worse, you can't find the source. You lose sleep, perpetually uncomfortable. "I'd find myself with my ears pressed to walls and floors," Yvonne Conner told the Financial Times. "I used to sit in our front room after tea and at around seven o'clock every night I'd go, 'It's coming.'" It's frustrating. Not everyone can hear the hum, leaving the people who can hear it to defend their experience. "When nobody else can hear it, you think you are going nuts, and it just wears you down," a person in Cambridgeshire, England, told The Guardian.

According to Discover Magazine, many people around the world — somewhere between 2% and 5% — hear a continuous low-grade sound, often described as a hum. Seldom taken seriously by scientists, "hum hearers" continue to suffer. "Eventually, it starts to just eat away at you in your head," Conner continued. However, she and others like her have found solace in online forums or in community groups of others who also hear the hum.

Taos, New Mexico, has a large concentration of hum hearers. The town, an historic arts colony known for its galleries and stunning natural features, is high on the list of global hum hotspots, writes Life Science.

The Taos Hum

Reports of the Taos Hum began in the 1990s. Unlike other global hums, the local scientific community took the issue seriously. The University of New Mexico, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Philips Air Force Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories participated in the research, reports Fox New Mexico. The study found that 2% of Taos residents heard the hum. The research teams brought sound equipment to the houses of those who hear the hum, though nothing of note was detected. The report's conclusion read, "we are left with a mystery" (via FOX New Mexico). To make matters more opaque, descriptions of the hum varied wildly. Some New Mexicans reported a whirring, while others said it sounded more like a buzz, writes Life Science. According to Fox New Mexico, others called it an E-flat note, or a powerful bass woofer.

The hum-hearers of New Mexico are not alone. Starting around the 1950s, people began reporting the hum globally, says How Stuff Works. Dr. Glen MacPherson, a Canadian high school teacher with a Ph.D. in education and a penchant for data collection, created the World Hum Map and Database Project. The website documents global instances of the hum. MacPherson hopes that researchers will one day use the data to find the hum's source and, even better, a solution, reports Discover Magazine. Purple dots, representing hum reports, scatter across Dr. MacPherson's global map, highly concentrated in the U.S. and Western Europe. For now, the data goes mostly unused.

Dangerous vibrations

Locating and eliminating the source of the hum could be lifesaving for the 2% of the world's population that hears it. Low-grade sound can be dangerous. For example, while humans stop hearing at 20Hz, listening to 19HZ prevents listeners from seeing straight. It's the frequency at which eyeballs vibrate. Even scarier, lower frequencies can damage internal organs. Loud noises are causes for concern too. Noise at 185 decibels can kill a person, reports Financial Times. Not surprisingly, those who hear the hum experience a range of illnesses, including nausea and fatigue. Others report memory loss and headaches, says Discover Magazine.

Hearing is a unique sense. Unlike sight, where you can close your eyes, we can't simply close our ears, making the hum particularly maddening. "I'm literally crying at night ... it seems to get louder and louder and louder," one hum-hearer told the BBC (posted on YouTube).

Governments and law enforcement agencies have used various noises as weapons because of their maddening and debilitating effects. The New Republic reports that law enforcement agencies have used weapons called Long Range Acoustic Devices (LARDS) on protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and on Somali pirates. Additionally, WaveBand Corporation's Mod Excess Deterrent Using Sound Audio (MEDUSA) uses microwaves to create uncomfortable sounds in the victim's head. Even unintentional noise can be deadly. The World Health Organization reported that in the E.U., roughly 10,000 people die each year due to chronic sound exposure (per Financial Times).

What's the hum's source?

Theories about the hum range from industrial sound pollution to UFOs, explains Live Science. An associate professor of engineering specializing in acoustics at the University of Windsor, Colin Novak, told Discover Magazine that he thinks the global hum may have an underground source. He suggests the movement of tectonic plates or volcanic activity causes the hum.

According to Live Science, some think the issue might be internal rather than environmental. Our ears produce their own noise, called spontaneous otoacoustic emission. Typically, we can only hear those inner-ear sounds when all other external sounds are removed. Others think that those who can hear the hum have extraordinarily good hearing and can detect frequencies that many cannot. That might explain how 98% of the Taos population didn't report hearing the hum. However, the fact that sensitive sound equipment cannot also pick up the frequencies calls this theory into question. Other theories include harmless auditory hallucinations, says Live Science.

Novak notes that because few credible scientific studies have looked into the hum, conspiracy theories run rampant. Online forums claim the hum is a sign of impending doom, ghosts, or the breaking of the seventh seal (via Financial Times). Unfortunately, the prevalence of conspiratorial ideas scares serious scientists away from the hum. They don't want to be associated with pseudoscience and internet kooks. This fear keeps credible research at bay, reports Discover Magazine.

Hope for hum hearers

Audiologist David Baguley asserts that the hum's source could combine several previous theories. He thinks that those with sensitive hearing could first detect a low-frequency sound caused by environmental conditions. Then, the hearer becomes fixated on the sound, causing anxiety-produced auditory hallucinations. In a sense, the body creates a feedback loop. The more the person focuses on the sound, "the more the body responds by amplifying the sound," Baguely told the Financial Times. While his idea is still unproven, he suggests that the sound could remain inside the hearer's body after the external sound has stopped. This absence could be why the researchers in Taos, New Mexico, were left stymied.

One solution has seemed to help those who hear the hum. Geoff Leventhall, an acoustics consultant, grew frustrated with the fruitless searches for the hum's source. Instead, he focused his attention on soothing the hum-hearer's symptoms. He told the Financial Times, "we won't measure any more noise, we'll try and help people accommodate to it." He and others created an online cognitive behavioral therapy course with positive results. Of the course's success, Levanthall says, "Some even say that we've saved their lives."

Leventhal's work could continue to save many more lives. At least one person has died by suicide because of the hum, reports How Stuff Works. This danger means that symptom-easing treatments like Levanthall's could lead to an important and impactful relief for hum hearers worldwide.

Some hums explained

Fortunately, researchers have identified some hum sources. This success might indicate that the "global hum" is many isolated instances. In Borneo, a sound startled and frightened residents for two days in 2012. Many equated the noises to loud snoring. Quickly investigators discovered the source, a factory performing tests on its boiler system, reports Live Science. Similarly, a hum in Kokomo, Indiana, was identified as a fan and compressor at an industrial site, writes Financial Times. Even stranger, in the 1980s, a hum reported by residents of Sausalito, California, was pinpointed as the mating call of a fish, the plainfin midshipman, according to New Republic.

A more notable instance occurred in 2011. Residents of Windsor, Canada, began to report an intermittent hum, sometimes lasting a few hours at a time. After complaints continued to rise, the government stepped in and funded a study. In 2013, researchers out of Windsor University identified the sound and the source of the problem. The Windsor hum was a 35-hertz airborne sound wave, most likely emanating from the location of a U.S. Steel Plant on Zug Island, just across the U.S.-Canada border. Unfortunately, neither the U.S. government nor U.S. Steel cooperated with the study, so Canadian researchers could not do further investigations. Luckily, in 2020, U.S. Steel closed the plant and the noise ceased, says Discover Magazine. Stories like these suggest that when substantial efforts are put into uncovering a hum's source, it can be found.