The Brain: “Ringing in the Ears” Actually Goes Much Deeper Than That

Research on tinnitus has shown that it’s rooted in the very way we process and understand sound.

In some of the world’s oldest medical texts­­—papyrus scrolls from ancient Egypt, clay tablets from Assyria—people complain about noise in their ears. Some of them call it a buzzing. Others describe it as whispering or even singing. Today we call such conditions tinnitus. In the distant past, doctors offered all sorts of strange cures for it. The Assyrians poured rose extract into the ear through a bronze tube. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder suggested that earthworms boiled in goose grease be put in the ear. Medieval Welsh physicians in the town of Myddfai recommended that their patients take a freshly baked loaf of bread out of the oven, cut it in two, “and apply to both ears as hot as can be borne, bind and thus produce perspiration, and by the help of god you will be cured.”

Early physicians based these prescriptions on what they believed tinnitus to be. Some were convinced it was caused by wind that got trapped inside the ear and swirled around endlessly, so they tried to liberate the wind by drilling a hole into the bones around the ear or using a silver tube to suck air out of the ear canal. The treatments didn’t work, but they did have an internal logic.

Today tinnitus continues to resist medicine’s best efforts, despite being one of the more common medical disorders. Surveys show that between 5 and 15 percent of people say they have heard some kind of phantom noise for six months or more; some 1 to 3 percent say tinnitus lowers their quality of life. Tinnitus can force people to withdraw from their social life, make them depressed, and give them insomnia.

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