Matthew Alice: Every day on my way to work I pass a dairy farm. All the cows in the herd are always facing the same direction. Is there a reason for this? — Anonymous, via email
Are they all waving at you? Got their thumbs stuck out lookin’ for a hitch? Maybe the whoosh as you drive by feels good on their moo-y faces and they like to stand in the optimum spot to enjoy it. Jeez, how should I know what they’re doing? Oh, yeah, I guess I’m supposed to say, “Heck, yes, I can answer this one, Anonymous! Glad someone finally asked!” (Note to self: send research elves out onto the south 40 to check the Alice Institute’s herd of Guernseys.)
I hear the growl of a herd of ATVs. Guess the elves are back. I always insist they appoint a spokeself. In the past, when all those little voices were competing for attention, it was high-pitched bedlam. Such a headache they gave me. So, today’s master of ceremonies says first that they all agree cows are very stupid. Not helpful, I say. But they also agree that cows are very beautiful. Again, not helpful, I say. The cows aren’t talking, so we have no first-hand evidence. I say, get on with it, get on with it. Okay, so the cowmaster said there’s a real reason why we say “a herd of cows.” They group together. Instinct. Protection from predators, the way other animals form big bunches. Every cow heading in the same direction means if they need to hot-foot it out of the area, they’ll all be going the same way. No traffic jams. Nose to butt might not be aesthetically pleasing, but it’s safe.
Hey Matt: I’ve recently developed tinnitus and it got me to wondering; is the sound that we who are afflicted hear in our heads measurable by any instrument or does the mind create the sound? Is there a cure? — Tim Woods, via email
Sorry to hear about your new affliction. I say, SORRY TO HEAR ABOUT YOUR NEW AFFLICTION! (Can I safely assume you’re not 20 anymore? It’s common for tinnitus to set in after age 40 or 50.) Ringing in the ears can certainly interfere with hearing. And “ringing” is only one description. The noise can be clicking, whooshing, pinging, whining — just about any annoying sound man has ever thought of.
The answer to your questions is yes and yes. One whole category of tinnitus (subjective tinnitus) is a sound created in the sufferer’s brain that cannot be heard by another. Perception of sound starts when hairs in our inner ears are jiggled in a particular way, usually by a sound external to us. This stimulates an electrical charge, which zaps to the hearing center of the brain, where the jiggling is interpreted as sound, since that’s what our hearing brain center is expecting. Subjective tinnitus is actually caused not by an external noise, but one of a host of internal problems. One common cause of subjective tinnitus is broken sound-sensing ear hairs. Or some glitch in the neural pathway to the brain. Or some brain malfunction. These sounds can only be “heard” by a physician in an abstract sort of way. Audiological tests can identify the frequency and volume of the sound only you perceive, but they can’t run the sound through an amplifier and fill the room with your annoying ticks and roars.
Objective tinnitus is another whole category. And a physician can hear your misery through a stethoscope. Objective tinnitus is generally caused by blood-flow anomalies from pulse or blood-vessel problems, jaw movements, muscle spasms, ear-bone difficulties. Any of these can stimulate your auditory centers and cause what you would call tinnitus. But each will produce an audible sound (squishing, whooshing, ticking, etc.) that is very real in the outside world and not just in your head.
Objective tinnitus, apparently, is pretty unusual. The biggest bunch of us have the plain-Jane subjective style. And among the plain-Janes of the Boomer generation are those of us who have tinnitus from too much loud music. Not that anybody’s going to cut back on the dance scene just because they’ll spend the last 40 years of their lives with a continual squeal in their ears. But, wait, even the crumpled-looking hipster 20s types and everybody down to middle-school age is unfortunately doing the same thing to their ears with those iPod buds and Lady Gaga cranked up. But, you’ve all heard that a thousand times. Promise me that years from now you’ll try to hear the plaintive echo of the voices of a thousand audiologists behind that force-five hurricane blowing through your head all day.