If you’ve ever gone diving or, less likely, spent time in an anechoic chamber, you might’ve heard ringing in your ears. Is it just you, or do everyone’s ears ring when in silence?
Everyone’s ears ring when in silence. Tinnitus—or ringing ears—is a common complaint, especially in the deaf. This is because in the absence of sound our brains create auditory hallucinations. Scientists don’t know why this happens, but in most hearing people, it’s a symptom of another condition.
In this article, I’ll explain why everyone’s ears ring in silence, why our brains create hallucinations in silence, and why your ears might ring anyways despite you not having a hearing impairment. I’ll also briefly talk about why tinnitus warrants a visit to the doctor.
Why Everyone’s Ears Ring When in Silence
Everyone’s ears ring when in silence. In studies, scientists have immersed subjects in anechoic (or soundless) chambers to induce tinnitus in people who’ve never had it before, suggesting that it’s one of our brain’s natural reactions to silence.
It’s hard to imagine a soundless environment. Today, we are subjected to noise pollution everywhere—even in rural areas. To test their theories, scientists created the anechoic chamber. It uses sound-proof materials to create a room with no sound.
In 2008, a study was published in Brazil where 68% percent of the study participants experienced tinnitus when subjected to complete silence. In some similar studies and personal accounts, people also experienced auditory hallucinations. Some even heard music that wasn’t there, but that they’d heard before in their day-to-day lives.
One such example came from a man named Jad Abumrad, otherwise known as a host of RadioLabs, who heard Fleetwood Mac while sitting in an anechoic chamber. You can read about his experience in this article.
People camping in the forest or drifting on the open ocean have reported these phenomena, too. In many of these stories, it sparks fear, and sometimes, it even causes tragic accidents. Fortunately, most people living today will never experience this kind of quiet outside an anechoic chamber.
Tinnitus and hallucinations seem to be the human brain’s natural response to a lack of auditory stimulus. In fact, the majority of patients who complain of tinnitus and auditory hallucinations are deaf. Even those born profoundly deaf sometimes report hearing loud voices in their head.
Why Would Your Ears Ring if You Aren’t Deaf?
But what if your hearing is fine? Why would your ears ring if you aren’t deaf?
Your ears might ring if you aren’t deaf for several reasons. Wax buildup can block sound, and the hairs your ears use to pick up sound can be damaged by medication. There are just as many nerves traveling from the brain to ear as from ear to brain, so suffering a head injury can cause tinnitus too.
Wax build-up is a common cause of temporary hearing loss, especially in those who stick Q-tips or cotton bolls in their ears to clean them. The cotton pushes the wax back against the eardrum, creating a seal that blocks out all sound.
In other cases, it’s the fault of ototoxic medications. These medicines damage the hairs in the ear, which are used to pick up the vibrations that your eardrum and brain process as sound. When they’re damaged, it causes hearing loss. NSAIDs and antibiotics can also make already-existing tinnitus worse.
In patients with serious head injuries, hallucinations are sometimes common. They can persist far into one’s recovery, and may even be permanent. Those with head injuries may often experience multiple types of hallucinations at once, such as seeing lights while hearing sounds.
If the part of your brain that processes auditory stimuli is damaged, or your hearing is impaired, this can easily result in tinnitus and auditory hallucinations.
Why Do Our Brains Hallucinate To Deal With Complete Silence?
But why, exactly, do our brains hallucinate to deal with complete silence in the first place?
Scientists don’t know why our brains react to silence with auditory hallucinations. One popular explanation is that it’s our brains misinterpreting where our thoughts are coming from. Another is that while processing sensory stimuli, complete silence causes our brain to get its wires crossed.
Our brains are way more flexible than a machine. Its connections aren’t “hardwired.” They’re capable of sending impulses just about anywhere—as anyone with epilepsy knows—and sometimes this causes strange sensory phenomena.
People who lose limbs experience phantom pains. Blind people see lights, and deaf people hear ringing, voices, or music.
When a sense is “missing”, the brain creates its own information to fill the void. It’s simply a messy response to having available empty space, and it’s completely natural. If sensory stimulus returns, most people’s symptoms quickly disappear and they’re none the worse for wear for their ordeal.
Should You See a Doctor for Your Ringing Ears?
So, how serious is tinnitus? Could it be a sign of deeper illness? Should you see a doctor for your ringing ears?
Tinnitus is, more often than not, a symptom of another underlying condition. If you’re experiencing disruptive ringing in your ears, it’s a good idea to see your doctor. Not only can they remove impacted wax for you, but they can further investigate the cause of your tinnitus.
While it’s possible to clear out your impacted earwax by yourself by angling warm water from your shower into your ear, it’s not always enough. More serious cases of impaction may require manual extraction.
It also might not be earwax impaction. Sometimes, tinnitus is a symptom of something as simple as a sinus infection. Other times, it could mean that you’ve suffered a brain injury. Your tinnitus could be a sign of many different injuries, disorders, and other medical problems.
So if you have new-onset tinnitus that’s severe enough to impact your day-to-day life, see your doctor. They’ll help you get to the bottom of its cause and alleviate your symptoms.
Sometimes, the cause of tinnitus may not need any intervention or signal any risk to your hearing. In that case, your doctor may recommend ways of lessening the impact of tinnitus in your life.
Even if your tinnitus doesn’t turn out to be anything worrying, you should still see a doctor to be sure.
Everyone’s ears ring in silence. Tinnitus and hallucinations are our brain’s natural response to it, but scientists don’t know why. Your ears might ring even if you’re not deaf because of earwax impaction or hearing loss. If you have tinnitus, you should see your doctor.