FT Magazine Science The international mystery of ‘the Hum’ In places where the unnatural droning sound is said to occur, those who hear it suffer. Is it even real? Imogen West-Knights FEBRUARY 11 2022 One night in late November last year, I stood at the window of a hotel in Halifax, West Yorkshire. Before me, the year’s first snow spread out over the town and cloaked the hilltops just visible in the gloom beyond, from which the wind came howling down into the valley. I had just arrived after driving four and a half hours from London. I drove in the dark without stopping, feeling a strange compulsion to get there as quickly as possible, because I was following the siren call of a mystery. As I stood at the window, I was not primarily looking, but listening. I strained to hear anything under the wuthering wind, the distant swish of car tyres and my own breath in my throat. The mystery I had come to investigate was something that could not be seen. The mystery was a noise. We know that loud noises are harmful, but sound has other powers over us that we don’t usually consider. Most humans can’t hear sounds below 20Hz in frequency, but you would know if you sat in front of a speaker playing a 19Hz sound because you’d stop being able to see straight. Nineteen hertz is the frequency at which the human eyeball resonates. Go lower and louder, and sound waves can interfere with other organs, making you breathless or nauseated by rattling your lungs and stomach. Experts generally agree that any sound wave greater than 185 decibels would kill a person, although this would be difficult to achieve in practice, as even a jet taking off produces only 150dB. The view from Roper Lane, Halifax © Benjamin McMahon But it need not be this dramatic. Even relatively quiet noise can be enough to damage your health. The World Health Organization estimates that at least 10,000 people die every year in the EU as a result of chronic exposure to unwanted noise. More so than is the case with some of our other senses, it is difficult to close our ears. And while it’s tricky to take someone’s life with sound, with a persistent noise from a mysterious source, it is relatively easy to ruin it. A year and a half before me, another woman was looking out of another window at another Halifax night. In the early hours of the morning Yvonne Conner, a 50-year-old resident of the suburb of Holmfield, was woken up in her Victorian stone terraced house by a strange, low humming sound that throbbed in her ears. This wasn’t the first time. For about a month she had been hearing this sound all over her house, on and off. But tonight, she’d had enough. She got in her car and drove around the town, stopping every now and then to listen. The sound was everywhere although, oddly, it was strongest inside her own home. But she couldn’t work out where it was coming from and eventually she got back into bed, defeated. And the humming continued. In the following days she scoured her house, turning off everything electric, asking her neighbours to do the same. Still, the noise persisted. She couldn’t stand it. “I’d find myself with my ears pressed to walls and floors,” she told me when we first spoke on the phone, before I went to visit. And the strangest thing was, it wasn’t just a sound. It had a presence. “It came with a wave of energy first,” Conner said. “I used to sit in our front room after tea and at around seven o’clock every night I’d go, ‘It’s coming.’” On top of all this, neither her husband nor her son could hear it at all. Yvonne Conner: ‘For everybody who hears it, eventually, it starts to just eat away at you in your head’ © Benjamin McMahon In January 2021, Conner, by now consistently sleep deprived and driven half mad by the noise, set up a Facebook page about hearing it. It turned out, to her great relief, that she wasn’t losing her mind: all over Halifax, others were hearing it too. People I spoke to compared the sound with a diesel engine idling, a vacuum cleaner, a washing machine, something vibrating. “It’s like you can hear a car coming, but it never gets there,” according to Holmfield resident Gemma Redford. However they characterised the noise, the debilitating effects people told me about were the same. Anxiety, headaches, sleeplessness, tension, despair, fears they were going insane. “I’m literally crying at night . . . it seems to get louder and louder and louder,” one woman told BBC Look North. And the more they tuned into it, the more they heard it. “Daft as it sounds,” Sue Dollard told me, “once you’ve heard it, you can’t unhear it.” I used to sit in our front In fact, Conner didn’t just find other people room after tea, and at hearing this humming in Halifax. She found people hearing it all over the world. Halifax is just around seven o’clock every the most recent incidence of an as-yet night I’d go, it’s coming unexplained phenomenon in which a group of Yvonne Conner, Holmfield resident people in one place will start hearing what has come to be known as “the Hum”, a low droning sound with no discernible source. The earliest reliable reports of this came from Bristol in the 1970s. The News of the World asked readers in the city whether they had heard the sound, and almost 800 people responded that they had. The problem was said to be so bad that it was causing nosebleeds. The Hum is a global phenomenon. “I feel as if my bed were electrically charged. The pillow, the mattress and my whole body vibrate,” one hearer in Germany reported in 2001. In 1992, someone who heard the Hum in Southampton told a local newspaper that it had driven them almost to suicide: “I have been on tranquillisers and have lost count of the number of nights I have spent holding my head in my hands, crying and crying.” Woodland, County Durham; Taos, New Mexico; Largs, Scotland; Kokomo, Indiana; Windsor, Ontario: all places where hearers, most of whom are middle aged and female, have been pushed to the brink by the sound. An alarmingly frequent simile that hearers use to describe their experiences is “as if my head was going to explode”. Before I went to Halifax to try to hear this noise for myself, I looked for recordings of it online. There are some but fewer than you might expect. This is partly because low- frequency sounds, also known as infrasounds, are difficult to pick up with flimsy recording equipment such as mobile phones, and more difficult than high-frequency noise for human ears to get a directional fix on. Some videos sound like what people in Holmfield described on the phone. Other videos were more disquieting. I clicked on one called The Hum (Taos Hum for 12 Hours). I couldn’t hear much until I listened to it with a pair of proper headphones. What I heard then made my back prickle with dread. It was an ominous beat, almost more of a pressure on the eardrum than a sound, something truly chthonic. Another recording of the Hum in Windsor sounds like if you put your ear to someone’s pregnant stomach to hear a heartbeat. The sound of something waiting to be born. Speculation online has, of course, run wild. It’s Mother Earth warning us of an impending catastrophe. It’s the breaking of the seventh seal. It’s ghosts (psychics sometimes measure for low-frequency sound when they investigate a haunted building). It’s waves hitting the ocean floor thousands of miles away. One of very few academic studies in this field, by US geoscientist David Deming, who has previously denied climate change, posited that some humans might be able to pick up radio signals. My rabbit hole led me to videos of a phenomenon called “sky trumpets”: booming, brasslike sounds that seemed to be coming from somewhere on high, before I decided to climb out and set off for Yorkshire. Ovenden Moor © Benjamin McMahon Holmfield is a small, unostentatious place. It sits on the side of a valley and consists of little more than a cluster of industrial units, rows of terraced houses, two pubs, some schools and a fish and chip shop. People hear the Hum in the neighbouring areas of Ovenden and Queensbury too. The morning after I arrived, I went for a long walk in the snow, asking whoever I came across what they knew of a mystery noise. Several shopkeepers told me that they couldn’t hear it, but their elderly customers had been complaining about it lately. Someone who wanted to be identified only as “Mr Lynch” at a sandwich shop called Roll With It told me with a conspiratorial air that it was an electricity substation or else noise resonating through the water mains. Jay, a man who came up to me in a corner shop, told me to check out the “5G tower”. I asked Andy at the Ron Lee car dealership about the noise. “Have you tried looking up there?” he said, pointing upwards. Thinking that he meant some kind of fan unit on the roof, I asked him what was up there, to which he replied “aliens” and then advised me not to ask weird questions if I didn’t want weird answers. At the Queensbury Tavern, a regular also suggested UFOs, or else that a woman standing in the pub with us had left her vibrator on. Three teenage girls outside a Costcutter had no idea what I was talking about and laughed in my face. Gemma in Wow Wow Balloons party shop said she did hear it, but she didn’t know where it came from and her family had managed to get used to it. And though I tried, inasmuch as one can try to hear anything, I did not hear the Hum anywhere I went. By the end of my first day in Halifax, the question that asked itself had become more pressing. Was the Hum even real? We have a word for sounds that some people can hear and others can’t: hallucinations. The following afternoon, I met Yvonne Conner, the woman who set up the Facebook group, in person. Conner is a dog walker and so we went to walk a dog. After we’d picked up a golden retriever called Chewy in her four-by-four, she drove us to some fields next to a stream near her house. She considers herself a spokesperson for the phenomenon in this area and, as we drove, Conner pointed out houses where people lived who could hear the Hum, as well as where people had lived before the Hum forced them to move. She’s lived here all her life, as evidenced by the free and easy way she tramped off beside the beck after we’d parked and let the dog out, while I veered close to falling into it as I tried to keep up with her. Conner hasn’t always been a dog walker. She used to be a support worker for a homeless charity, work she loved. But the stress and sleeplessness that the Hum was causing her eventually meant she couldn’t function at work and she felt she had to quit. “How many people would risk quitting their job in an uncertain time like the pandemic if something wasn’t bothering them to that extent?” she said. Conner has a no-nonsense demeanour, but there’s an understandably defensive note in it too. It is the attitude of someone who has been disbelieved. The cover of the FT Weekend Magazine, February 12/13 We are familiar with unprovable suffering. One challenge of treating chronic pain, for instance, is that it requires the doctor to meet the patient half way by believing their account of their experiences. Hearers of the Hum run into similar problems, but with an additional downside that, unlike chronic pain, the problem of hearing a weird noise that only a tiny percentage of the population hears seems, to some people, sort of funny. It’s the problem sufferers of the still unexplained Havana syndrome have too, an air of the ridiculous. This is not helped by news stories of recordings that turned out to be the mating call of a cricket. If not outright laughed at, Hum hearers are familiar with being told, by people with expertise no less, that they’re ignorant or insane. In 1994, Jonathan Hazell, head of research at the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, was asked by The Independent about the Hum. “It’s rubbish,” he said. “‘Hummers’ are a group of people who cannot accept that they have tinnitus.” As we walked, Conner told me that the noise was so bad that she was considering moving away, but all her loved ones lived here in West Yorkshire. “I hear it all over Halifax,” she said as Chewy flung himself into the water, and she hears it all night and throughout weekends. She had found herself shelling out for regular caravan holidays just to get a decent night’s sleep. “I don’t even like caravans,” she said. “But for everybody who hears it, eventually, it starts to just eat away at you in your head.” Ovenden Moor © Benjamin McMahon Conner doesn’t believe it’s a mystery and doesn’t believe there is such a thing as the worldwide Hum, either. As we walk further down into the valley, she points at some industrial buildings off in the distance. “The one with the chimney smoke coming out? That’s Gower.” Gower Furniture was a name that came up in my conversations with locals. It is one of a handful of companies that have a factory in Holmfield, and several people told me that I should go and have a listen. Before I came to meet Conner, I did that, standing outside the factory gates. There was indeed a loud, droning noise there. Standing in the field, she and I could both hear it too. “That’s what I hear in my house,” she told me, pointing in the air. We both stood there humming, matching the factory’s pitch, and Conner gave the building a steely look. The noise we heard in the fields didn’t sound so unusual to me. I noticed the day before that the fan around the back of the chippy made this same noise. But then I went inside Conner’s house. And there, standing in her kitchen in my wet socks, as night began pressing in at the windows, I heard it. A low, droning noise, the same pitch as the one we heard out in the fields and, beneath it, just perceptible, the same throbbing pulse I heard on the YouTube videos. I almost thought I could feel it in my feet, vibrating through the floor. I told Conner I could hear it, and she seemed relieved. “I could live with that, if it was like that all the time,” she said, “but this is about a three out of 10.” Not only was the Hum a real noise, but I was one of the people who could hear it. Sure enough, when I went back to my hotel room that night and listened to the recording I had made on my phone, the Hum wasn’t there. In the summer of 2020, a handful of Canadian outlets reported that the Hum in Windsor, Ontario, had finally gone quiet. A 2014 report into the noise by the University of Windsor suggested that the noise might be coming from Zug Island, an industrial enclave off the coast of Michigan where there was a steelworks, but the company hadn’t co-operated with investigators. In April 2020, the steelworks closed of its own accord. And the noise, it seemed, disappeared. Could it be this simple in Halifax too? A noisy furnace? The next day, I went to have a coffee in nearby Hebden Bridge with Scott Patient, a Labour councillor for Calderdale’s Luddendenfoot ward in his thirties. He ordered the smallest pastel de nata I’d ever seen and told me that strange and spooky noises weren’t really his remit, but the ball had ended up in his court. All this is difficult for his colleagues at Environmental Health because, like all UK councils, Calderdale does not have an unlimited budget to spend on increasingly arcane recording equipment. Because the Noise Act entitles people to live free of loud noises in their homes, the council can record and act on high-decibel levels, but it’s not the volume of the Hum that’s the issue. Scott Patient, Labour councillor for Calderdale © Benjamin McMahon Patient posited that because lots of people reported hearing it in the early part of 2020, it might be that lockdown meant more people noticed a noise that had been there before. “If you track the heavy industrial businesses back,” he said, “nothing significantly has changed in that time that hasn’t been checked out and crossed out.” And it turns out that the council did investigate Gower and found that wasn’t it. Nor was it any of the other industrial sites they looked at. Gower says it has worked with residents and local officials and eliminated itself as a potential source, and they don’t even run equipment at the weekends or overnight, times when local residents told me the Hum was at its worst. After I said goodbye to Patient, I sat in my car feeling that here, at the end of my trip, I was back where I started: with a mystery. What was going on here? I heard a real sound in Conner’s house, but it’s seemingly not from the sources that people suspect. If it’s caused by industrial noise in Halifax, who’s making it? And if so, does that mean that we’re not even talking about “the Hum”? Is the worldwide Hum a separate phenomenon from real noises? Back in London, I put these questions to a mild-mannered Canadian high school teacher called Glen MacPherson, over Zoom. He is another person who found himself in his car, driving around his small town in coastal British Columbia, looking for a noise he was suddenly able to hear in the spring of 2012. MacPherson, who has a PhD and an eclectic CV that includes social research and psychology, is one of a very small number of people undertaking serious study into the Hum and one of an even smaller number ready to stick their neck out about their theories in the media. “If I reveal any lack of passion in my answer,” he said apologetically when I asked him where it all began with him and the Hum, “it’s only because of the 150 to 200 times I’ve had to give it before.” By the end of 2012, he had set up a database at thehum.info. Here, he invited people from all over the world to report their experience of hearing the sound, so he could plot their location on a map and, he hoped, later analyse the data for clues. For a few years, he was convinced by David Deming’s hypothesis that the Hum was caused by radio waves emitted by major military powers. Ultimately, an experiment involving a large and sinisterly sarcophagal metal box that insulates against radio waves proved that theory false, but MacPherson has continued his investigations. Now, he and some scientists he’s collaborated with think they are on to something. “We have very good reason to believe that the worldwide Hum is not a sound,” he said. He believes that the Hum is not tinnitus, but is like tinnitus: an auditory phenomenon that is generated by the human body and not an external stimulus. And it is distinct from actual environmental noise. MacPherson’s frustration is palpable as he talks about the common confusion between these two things. “Many people are incapable of understanding that there are anthropogenic sounds, which have similar characteristics to the worldwide Hum. Part of the job is to tease those two apart. Once you eliminate all reasonable sources of human- caused sound, you’re left with the phenomenon that I’m studying.” The view from Ovenden back towards Halifax © Benjamin McMahon I tell him about my time in Holmfield, and he tells me that if I was able to hear it in Conner’s kitchen, it’s almost certainly not what he means when he talks about the Hum, and is environmental noise instead. But here’s where it gets complicated: one could lead to the other. Some people naturally have more sensitive hearing. This explains why only some people can hear real environmental noises that drive them crazy, while others seem unaffected. For those who can hear the noise, a feedback loop can be created. The audiologist David Baguley has argued that the more people focus on anxiety caused by a mystery sound, “the more the body responds by amplifying the sound”. It is possible, although not proven, that this feedback loop and intense focus on a noise might mean that people keep hearing a noise even after the source has disappeared. Despite the news reports from 2020, some residents of Windsor are still hearing a humming sound, even though the steelworks have now closed down. There is a Facebook group full of people still reporting sleepless nights and exasperation. It’s a similar story in Kokomo, Indiana, where the humming was eventually traced to a fan and compressor located on an industrial site. But again, some people kept hearing the noise even after they were turned off. Why is there such a mystery around the Hum, if it could be as simple as an as-yet under- researched syndrome in conjunction with real noises? Partly it’s that people, and particularly people on the internet, like a mystery. MacPherson had noticed that people were not generally interested in prosaic solutions. “I actually solved the sky trumpet mystery, but nobody cares,” he told me, laughing. The trumpet sound is caused by two things: large vehicles braking at slow speeds and by trains travelling on curved rails. The outside wheels have to turn faster than the inside wheels because they’re going a greater distance, but the wheels are locked on an axle and so the outside wheel ends up skipping, causing the noise. “It’s more emotionally attractive for some people to think that it’s Gabriel’s horns,” said MacPherson. What MacPherson admits to having done, though, is pandering to the idea of the mysterious Hum in the media. “I thought that if I could get the public hooked on some sort of mystery, then along the way, there would be good numbers of serious people who would say, ‘OK, I want to find out what this is.’” It’s partly worked for him. One of his media appearances resulted in an academic from Helsinki getting in touch with him and they are now collaborators in his research. It’s a risky strategy, though. The mystery has also attracted fantasists, which gives the Hum an air of crackpottery that has put off serious scientists and hindered research. But the primary reason that we still don’t know what causes the Hum, he told me, is that although it may be interesting, it’s too niche an issue for proper research money to get spent on. There are some scientists who have tried in earnest. Geoff Leventhall, a consultant in acoustics, has been researching the Hum on and off for more than 50 years. It’s been maddening because all too often he found that, even with very sensitive equipment, he wasn’t able to measure the Hum separately from ordinary background noise where people reported hearing it. It is partly the way one frames a noise that makes it distressing. We ascribe moral qualities to sound. If a factory is running equipment, that sound is inherently more irritating than, say, morning bird song, because it implies a lack of consideration, a hierarchy of priorities that a sparrow cannot have. This is where Leventhall’s focus has now shifted, away from the seemingly intractable problem of what causes these noises to be heard and on to how to think about them. “I thought, blow this, we won’t measure any more noise, we’ll try and help people accommodate to it,” he said. Leventhall helped to design an online course, not dissimilar from cognitive behavioural therapy, to help people think about the noise differently. It was very successful. People who took the course talked about regaining their sanity, improving their personal relationships and rediscovering hope for the future. “Some even say that we’ve saved their lives,” Leventhall said. I can understand why this is not the route that many Hum hearers want to take, though. I heard the noise that people in Holmfield are hearing and, were it my own home, I probably wouldn’t give up until I knew who or what was producing it. Giving up is certainly not on Conner’s agenda. She has the television, the radio or Alexa on in every room of her house and tries to drown the noise out at night with rainforest sounds, but it’s a stop-gap rather than a solution. The question of where her noise is coming from is too enraging to ignore. We may be approaching a time when the only people still pursuing an answer are the people unlucky enough to hear it. Leventhall is 92. His time working on the Hum is drawing to a close, and he said that interest in doing serious work on it had dissipated over the years because it got nowhere. Conner went on a cruise over Christmas to escape the Hum. As soon as she returned, the old, pulsating presence was there to welcome her home. “I don’t know where it ends,” she said. “If it ever ends.” Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.