It’s true to say that in the big wide world of hearing, technology and specialist knowledge is ever advancing, yet there are still some mysteries as yet unsolved. One such one is the bizarre way that we react to “horrible” sounds.

Nails down a black board is perhaps the most notorious of such sounds but how about squeaky balloons and felt tip pens? The tearing of polystyrene or my own personal sure-fire-shudder-maker- smoothing sweeps across cotton bed sheets, eek!

Eighteen-year-old amateur scientist Izzy Thomlinson from Shropshire is on a mission to discover who is highly sensitive to which particular noises and how this varies with age, gender and personality.

“I’m particularly interested in testing noises that people find horrible, but you can’t think of a logical reason why,” Izzy explains.

Miss Thomlinson designed the interactive experiment as apart of BBC Radio 4s quest to find the UKs best amateur researcher in ‘So You Want to Be a Scientist?’ (Material World Mon 16:30, R4) and she will be conducting it nationally using social media.

All of the young finalists involved in the radio 4 show have been teamed up with a professional scientist to mentor and help them turn their fresh ideas into tangible theories and experiments.
Izzy has been paired with acoustic engineer Prof Trevor Cox, Salford University who has discovered from previous studies that the most irritating noise in the world is the sound of someone vomiting. By provoking a universal reaction of disgust, it alerts us to the threat of disease. However he claims the jury is still out as to why people react so strongly to seemingly random sounds such as nails scraping down a blackboard or cutlery screeching on a plate. He continues…

“Our response to this sound is an enigma, what would be the evolutionary or cultural reason for responding so strongly to scraping sounds? It seems to serve no purpose.

We’re not going to be able to answer this directly from our research, but hopefully Izzy will be able to shed a little more light on what is going on.”

Izzy will be updating her research diary on Facebook and we look forward to hearing what results she comes up with. Since going live a week ago, the experiment has already had well over 10 000 participants. To join in and take the test click here.

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