June 16, 2022 — If you had to choose one person to let out a shout, the last one you would choose would be Harold Gouzoules. Emory University professor has white shorts Hairglasses and the behavior of someone who would return your wallet to you if you dropped it.
Gouzoules, who holds a master’s degree in psychology and a doctorate in zoology, has studied cries for 40 years, perhaps more than anyone on earth. He has 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 walk into his lab and hear awful sounds.
And why not? In everyday life, screaming means drama. You are angry, you need help, you are scared, you are ecstatic. If someone you live with shouts in another room, you come functioning (to the rescue or to hear the good news or to see the spider). Shouting is a basic yet complex form of communication that reflects and evokes a wide range of emotions.
While screaming in all its forms is instinctive, the role models we’ve had along the way have helped us perfect it. Hollywood has elevated the scream to art: from mother-daughter scream team Janet Leigh to psychology and Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloweento the roaring rage of the combined casts of the Lord of the Rings and game of thrones, to happy/catharsis moans like those of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper at the end of Silver Linings Playbook. In many ways, we’re screaming with them in the theater — quietly, inwardly — participating in something we “understand” but don’t really understand.
And what about when it is completely acceptable to let go in mixed society? Yelling 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 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City). It can even be musical – Roger Daltrey of The Who gave us arguably the biggest rock ‘n’ roll shoutout of all time in ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’.
So many screams. What does all this mean?
Gouzoules was drawn to scream research while doing postdoctoral work at Rockefeller University with eminent 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 cries, which are much more diverse and, despite being a universal behavior, remain a black hole of understanding.
Over the years, Gouzoules has studied six major contexts in which humans shout.
It is the most common type of call 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 strength and cause the vocal cords to vibrate chaotically and incoherently. A cry of fear is intense, loud, piercing and the most chaotic. It’s designed to scare away a predator, whether it’s a Gotham villain or a saber-toothed tiger, and attract attention. When you’re out of options, a cry of fear is evolution’s last desperate attempt to escape.
This type of cry sums up the agony. “It’s deeper, more guttural and more serious than a cry of fear”, explains Gouzoules. It can be a call for help or a more private vocal expression of physical or mental injury.
Startle cries, as they are also called, tend to be short and sonically simple, compared to other cries.
Think about the videos you’ve watched where a guy dressed as a bush or a statue suddenly comes to life and surprises a passerby. Or your reaction when you turn on the light in the middle of the night and see a cockroach. The resulting largely involuntary cry is more surprise than genuine fear.
This is also called a cry of excitement; it communicates pleasure. Examples arise when opening a present and discovering a puppy inside, or among cheerful teenagers at a concert where their musical idol is on stage, or when you climax during sexual intercourse.
This scream usually occurs when you are mad at someone. It’s verbal aggression before physical aggression. “Some might use the word roar», explains Gouzoules.
This is the signature cry in the recent movie The man from the north, and it’s not always lonely. When the Viking mob heads into battle, they shout as one.
This behavior, says David Poeppel, PhD, professor of psychology at New York University and another respected researcher on the cry, is an example of synchronization. He explains that when we do something in a group, whether it’s a sports match or a war, shouting unites us, releases adrenaline, and focuses both our attention and our intention.
This type of shouting is aggressive in nature, often involuntary and usually directed at oneself or at a company. There is also anger in it, but not to the degree of the previous yelling category. Think about being stuck in traffic: you might pound the steering wheel and scream in private frustration.
Although these calls are the most common, they have no strict limits. They can overlap. What happens on a roller coaster, for example, is a mixture of fear and excitement. A cry of pain, when you are initially hurt, can turn into a cry of anger and rage as revenge is sought.
As Gouzoules explains, there is “a whole emotional web of cries”, some perhaps still unknown or uncategorized.
How shouting can help you
It’s not just the scream itself that’s fascinating, but also the effect it has on other humans.
Have you ever wondered why children scream so much? Gouzoules speculates it’s a way of conditioning parents and caregivers to recognize their child’s unique set of cries and, therefore, know when to mean trouble.
Likewise, have you ever wondered why we go to haunted houses or go on thrill rides in groups rather than alone? Again, there is speculation that this is a training ground for helping our friends know when we really need help. Indeed, study participants are unable to always tell the difference between fear and Happiness/screams of excitement, suggesting that all screams attract attention.
But can shouting also be used proactively to somehow improve everyday life? Here are some areas where other research suggests they might:
Relieve stress: Primal Scream Therapy has been around for over 50 years, popularized by various celebrities. Essentially, it replaces conventional psychotherapy sessions with the release of pent up emotions through screaming or other primal actions. So, for example, instead of lying on the therapist’s couch, you could beat the crap out of him by screaming.
It’s controversial (Gouzoules says scientific psychology has discredited primal scream therapy), but Poeppel says ordinary screams can likely provide emotional release from anxious situations or states, like hitting a heavy bag or crying a good shot.
Increase strength: A study from Iowa State University found that fast, loud, throaty screams increased strength. When study participants made these high-pitched exhalations (called kiaping in martial arts, which may not technically be screaming), their grip strength increased by 7% compared to those who made no sound.
The study author hypothesizes that the expulsion of air, often seen during tennis serves or before a stroke in combat sports, could stabilize the core and allow force to move more quickly through the members. The fact that these sounds may be involuntary might support this. Try it the next time you have trouble opening a pickle jar or hitting a final rep when weightlifting.
Increase performance: The Haka is traditionally played by New Zealand rugby teams before a big match. This is a Maori ceremonial war dance that features impressive group chanting and shouting.
It’s another example of teams using timing to motivate themselves and intimidate their opponents, Poeppel said. If something similar can work for you and your team, it can’t hurt to try.
Upgrade your car or home alarm: Fear cries have an auditory property called roughness. It refers to the rate at which sound changes in volume or amplitude. The roughest screams are the most terrifying and attract the most attention in the amygdala, the part of the brain that governs our fear response, says Poeppel. Engineers are now trying to figure out how security alarms or emergency sirens can be modified to contain more roughness and, thus, get faster reactions from us.
“I’m very excited about trying to find other acoustic triggers, like roughness, in screaming,” says Poeppel. “Imagine if there was a list of attributes such that if you hear one, it enters your brain and immediately produces a specific behavior. So little is still known about screams, even though they are fundamental to who we are as humans.