June 16, 2022 — If you had to choose one person to let out a scream, the last guy you’d pick would be Harold Gouzoules. The Emory University professor has short white hair, glasses, and the demeanor of someone who’d return your wallet if you dropped it.
Gouzoules, who holds a master’s in psychology and a PhD in zoology, has been studying screams for 40 years, perhaps longer than anyone on earth. He’s accumulated a library of “hundreds and hundreds” of screams. New students in the psychology department, where he teaches and researches, are warned not to call 911 if they’re strolling by his lab and hear some awful sounds.
And why not? In normal, everyday life, screaming means drama. You’re angry, you need help, you’re frightened, you’re ecstatic. If someone you live with screams in another room, you come running (to the rescue or to hear the good news or to see the spider). Screaming is an elemental-yet-complex form of communication that reflects and evokes a broad range of emotions.
While screaming in all its forms is instinctual, the role models we’ve had along the way have helped us perfect it. Hollywood has elevated screaming to an art form: from mother-daughter scream team Janet Leigh in Psycho and Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, to rage-roaring from the combined casts of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, to happy/catharsis wails like Jennifer Lawrence’s and Bradley Cooper’s at the end of Silver Linings Playbook. In many ways, we’re screaming right along with them in the theater – quietly, inwardly – participating in something we “get” but don’t really understand.
And what about when it’s entirely acceptable to let loose in mixed company? Screaming can make us laugh (take Sam Kinison’s stand-up act). It can lift an entire NFL sports team (the loudest crowd noise – 142.2 decibels – was recorded in Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium). It can even be musical – The Who’s Roger Daltrey gave us arguably the greatest rock ’n’ roll scream ever in “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
So many screams. What does it all mean?
Gouzoules was drawn into scream research while doing post-doctoral work at Rockefeller University with the prominent neuroscientist Peter Marler, who studied animal communication. Gouzoules worked with rhesus monkeys, focusing on the various vocalizations they make when fighting or issuing warnings. This led to the study of human screams, which are much more diversified and, despite being a universal behavior, are still a black hole of understanding.
Over the years, Gouzoules has studied six broad contexts in which humans scream.
This is the most common type of scream and probably the first in our evolutionary repertoire. “Think of Kim Basinger in the original Batman with Michael Keaton,” says Gouzoules. “It’s the classic ‘scream queen’ movie effort.”
Screams require a lot of vocal force and cause the vocal folds to vibrate in a chaotic, inconsistent way. A fear scream is intense, loud, piercing, and the most chaotic. It’s designed to scare a predator, be it some Gotham villain or a saber-toothed tiger, and attract attention. When you’re out of options, a fear scream is evolution’s last desperate attempt at escape.
This type of scream encapsulates agony. “It’s deeper, more guttural, and lower pitch than a fear scream,” Gouzoules explains. It can be a cry for help or a more private vocal venting of physical or mental injury.
Startle screams, as they’re also known, tend to be short and acoustically uncomplicated, compared to other screams.
Think of the videos you’ve watched where some guy disguised as a bush or a statue suddenly springs to life and startles a passerby. Or your reaction when you turn on the light in the middle of the night and spot a cockroach. The largely involuntary scream that results is more surprise than actual fear.
This is also called an excitement scream; it communicates pleasure. Examples crop up when opening a present and finding a puppy inside, or among joyful teenagers at a concert where their musical idol is on stage, or when you’re climaxing during sex.
This scream typically arises when you’re furious with someone. It’s the verbal assault prior to the physical one. “Some might use the word roar,” says Gouzoules.
This is the signature scream in the recent film The Northman, and it isn’t always solitary. When the Viking throng heads into battle, they scream as one.
That behavior, says David Poeppel, PhD, a professor of psychology at New York University and another respected scream researcher, is an example of synchronization. He explains that when doing something as a group, whether it’s a sporting match or war, screaming unites us, releases adrenaline, and focuses both our attention and intention.
This type of scream is aggressive in nature, often involuntary, and typically directed at oneself or some endeavor. There’s anger in it, too, but not to the degree of the previous scream category. Think of being stuck in traffic: You might pound the steering wheel and scream in private frustration.
Although these screams are the most common, they do not have strict boundaries. They can overlap. What happens on a rollercoaster, for example, is a blend of fear and excitement. A pain scream, when you’re initially wounded, can turn into one of anger and rage as retribution is sought.
As Gouzoules explains, there is “an entire emotional canvas of screams,” some perhaps still undiscovered or uncategorized.
How Screaming Might Help You
It’s not just the scream itself that’s fascinating, but also the effect it has on other humans.
Ever wonder why kids scream so much? Gouzoules speculates that it’s a way of conditioning parents and caregivers to recognize their child’s unique set of screams and, as a result, know when one means trouble.
Likewise, ever wonder why we go to haunted houses or do thrill rides in groups rather than alone? Again, there’s speculation that it’s a training ground for helping our friends know when we really need assistance. Indeed, study participants are unable to consistently tell the difference between fear and happiness/excitement screams, suggesting that all screams attract attention.
But can screams also be used proactively to somehow improve everyday life? Here are a few areas where other research suggests they might:
Ease stress: Primal scream therapy has been around for more than 50 years, popularized by various celebrities. Essentially, it swaps conventional psychotherapy sessions for letting out repressed emotions via screaming or other primal actions. So, for example, instead of lying on the therapist’s couch, you might beat the crap out of it while yelling.
It’s controversial (Gouzoules says scientific psychology has discredited primal scream therapy), but Poeppel says ordinary screaming probably can provide an emotional release from anxious situations or states, like punching a heavy bag or having a good cry.
Increase strength: A study at Iowa State University found that quick, loud, guttural yells boosted strength. When participants in the study made these sharp exhalations (called kiaping in martial arts, which may not technically be screaming), their handgrip strength increased 7% compared to those who didn’t make any sound.
The study author speculates that the expulsion of air, as often witnessed during tennis serves or prior to a blow in combat sports, might stabilize the core and allow force to travel more quickly through the limbs. The fact that these sounds can be involuntary could support that. Try it next time you’re struggling to open a pickle jar or bang out one last rep when weightlifting.
Boost performance: The Haka is traditionally performed by New Zealand rugby teams before a big match. It’s a ceremonial Maori war dance that features impressive group chanting and screaming.
It’s another example of teams using synchronization to psyche themselves up and intimidate opponents, says Poeppel. If something similar could work for you and your team, it can’t hurt to try.
Improve your car or house alarm: Fear screams have an auditory property called roughness. It refers to how fast the sound changes in loudness or amplitude. Screams with the highest roughness are the most terrifying and get the most attention in the amygdala, the part of the brain that governs our fear response, explains Poeppel. Engineers are now trying to determine how security alarms or emergency sirens can be tweaked to contain more roughness and, thus, get quicker reactions from us.
“I’m most excited about trying to find other acoustic triggers, like roughness, in screams,” says Poeppel. “Imagine if there were a list of attributes such that if you hear one it drills down into your brain and immediately produces a specific behavior. So little is still known about screaming even though it is fundamental to who we are as humans.”