In the spring of 1993, a peculiar mystery gripped Taos, New Mexico. Residents began reporting an unsettling noise that nobody could quite put their finger on, and so it became known as the Taos Hum. The phenomenon became so widely known that a week-long study was conducted to try and pinpoint the source of the sound, or if there even was one, but no obvious explanation arose. So, what was going on?
The Taos Hum is one of many hum studies explored by James Cowan in a 2008 document for the International Congress On Noise As A Public Health Problem.
“Stories of mysterious hums, low frequency sounds that only select individuals can hear without being able to identify the source, have become prevalent throughout the world over the past 20 years,” it reads. “In the United States, the first formal study to determine the source of a hum was performed in the [Taos], New Mexico area in the early 1990's. […] In 2003, another U.S. hum study was commissioned in Kokomo, Indiana, where hundreds of residents reported hearing a hum and blamed other, non-acoustical effects on the same phenomenon.”
Cowan was the lead investigator for the Kokomo Hum study and spotted consistencies between its findings and those of the Taos Hum. By comparing it against other peculiar noise reports from across the globe, it was hoped they might be able to pin down a source.
What did the Taos Hum sound like?
It’s worth noting that while these noisy occurrences have been named “hums”, the people detecting them didn’t all describe them that way. Instead, hum was an easy umbrella term adopted by the press and later for the “hum studies”. It’s a term meant to represent a noise that can be heard but isn't easy to identify.
Some described it as a feeling of vibration, while others described it as a sound similar to an idling engine or a pulsating noise. Attempts to block it out by covering ears wasn’t typically effective, and it could bring on unpleasant side effects including headache, nausea, diarrhea, and fatigue.
The unusual and wide-ranging reports of hums might trigger some to think they’re entirely made up, but it was Cowan’s view that it’s still something worth investigating.
“Because a small fraction of the populace can sense hums, people who have reported these sensations have often been ridiculed by peers and the press, making people less inclined to report such feelings. One of many common threads among people who sense hums is that they do not appear to be mentally infirm, as vocal critics who do not sense hums have tended to think. What they are sensing is real and is caused by something that they are sensitive to and most others are not. Our task is to determine the source of this phenomenon.”
The Taos Hum Study
The Taos Hum study was among the most comprehensive carried out in the US, followed by Kokomo in Indiana. Local concern around the hum motivated a cooperative effort between Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Phillips Air Force Laboratory, and the University of New Mexico to explore what was going on.
It found that 161 of the 8,000 surveyed residents in Taos could hear the hum, representing two percent of the populace, but that included a range of sounds. According to Live Science, for some it was a whir, others a buzz, and some people got the traditional hum experience.
The study then enrolled hearers to advise researchers as to when they could hear their version of the hum so that results from monitoring could be linked up. The study equipment was monitoring sound, seismic activity, and electromagnetic fields.
The results were inconclusive as the researchers were unable to identify a source for the Taos Hum using their equipment. The only finding was that at the time, there was an elevated electromagnetic field level linked to the town’s power lines.
What was the Taos Hum?
The source of the Taos Hum remains unknown, but there are a few interesting angles to explore. That there was an elevated electromagnetic field level isn’t considered all that relevant, but a 2019 study suggested that like pigeons, dogs, and turtles, our brains may be sensitive to magnetic fields. Furthermore, the ability of living cells to sense magnetic fields was verified for the first time in 2021, but there’s nothing yet to suggest this could materialize as a hum.
A more tangible theory relates to inner ear function. According to a paper published in the International Tinnitus Journal, hearers of the Taos Hum could be split into several categories: from hum type (idling truck, humming transformer, propeller plane, chugging boat), to hum location (one ear, both ears, alternating ears, or in the head).
The hearers also reported that the sound and location could change if they flew long-distance, or moved their head in a certain way, meaning they can be termed “force-interactive hums” (FIH). Around two percent of people experience severe forms of tinnitus, but an FIH doesn’t typically fit the bill for a diagnosis of tinnitus. That said, it could be a rare form.
The other consideration is that the Taos Hum may have represented a curious psychological phenomenon, and hearing a sound certainly wouldn’t be the weirdest contagious experience in history. In mainland Europe between the 11th and 17th centuries, there were a number of bizarre reports of the so-called dancing plague.
Everything from ergot poisoning to a mass trance has been suggested to explain the dancing plague, but perhaps one of the most reliable explanations is that it was a form of mass psychogenic illness, sometimes called mass hysteria. This describes an event in which groups experience similar psychological or physical symptoms, be that fainting, dancing, or – perhaps – hearing a hum.