What do Barbra Streisand, Ozzy Osbourne and Will.i.am have in common? Yes, they're famous musicians — but they also process sound differently from most of us.
That's the latest finding of a study that examines people with mild to moderate tinnitus, a hearing condition common among musicians that causes a ringing sound in the ears. (As a drummer for nearly two decades and a former member of a touring band, I've had tinnitus for five years. I know what it's like to never live in complete silence.)
The research, published in the journal PLOS One, shows that people with tinnitus can habituate the bothersome sound, mentally condemning it to that neurological basement area where refrigerator hums and street traffic live.
But here's the especially cool part: To counteract the ringing, your brain literally changes how it operates.
University of Illinois speech and hearing science professor Fatima Husain, leader of the study, had subjects with mild to moderate tinnitus listen to pleasant, unpleasant and neutral sounds (for example: laughter, pained screaming and a bottle opening).
Husain expected to find that people with tinnitus would be further irritated by negative sounds, like adding a fire alarm on top of a Meghan Trainor song. Instead, Husain found the negative sounds didn't bother patients as much, because in their brains, the sounds took a different path. They were rerouted from a place of emotional processing to one of logical processing.
Most people's brains deal with noise in the amygdala, a structure that attaches emotional meaning to any sound or picture. When they hear nails on a chalkboard or view gory images on TV, the amygdala associates it with a stress response. So when people without tinnitus hear ringing, their brains create an anxious, fight-or-flight feeling.
Because people with tinnitus hear ringing constantly, their brains learn to tune out the sound. When they hear new sounds, their brains reroute the noise from the amygdala to the frontal cortex, where it's assessed logically instead of emotionally — creating a calm, thought-out response instead of a knee-jerk, panicky one.
"The sound is taking an alternate route in your brain," Husain told Mic. "You're able to suppress the attention to your tinnitus, which disengages the emotional component."
Let's say you just heard an unannounced knock on the door. If you don't have tinnitus, your amygdala associates something stressful with the sound — for example, if you recently saw the movie Panic Room, the sound might trigger visions of a home invasion. For people with tinnitus, according to Husain, the reaction is more likely to remain neutral — to them, it's just a doorbell.
However, Husain says, people with severe tinnitus aren't able to habituate the sound, which is why some people with tinnitus also have anxiety or depression.
While the study isn't definitive yet, Husain believes that using fMRI to see how the brain reroutes sounds can show whether some forms of cognitive therapy — teaching the brain to tune out tinnitus — are working. It could even lead to be the first real, concrete way to see if a subjective ailment like tinnitus is getting any better. For me and many others who sleep with a fan on to drown out the ringing in their ears, it could be the first steps to diagnosing and addressing a persistent condition.
Basically, the way diabetics can draw blood to test glucose levels, people suffering from tinnitus could use fMRIs to test how well their brains are rerouting sound.
"Blood drawing is obviously more concrete," Husain said. "But it's getting there, and we can show, over three studies, that this is working."