Tinnitus, the chronic ringing in your ears when no sound is present, can be extremely distressing.
Ansel Elgort as Baby in Baby Driver. Image: Wilson Webb/TriStar Pictures
The soundtrack in the summer sleeper action film, Baby Driver, is crucial to the plot. It's a killer, infectious mix of 60s Memphis soul, contemporary hip-hop, and 70s bongo smashers. And it's a major part of the movie because the title character uses these tunes to drown out his tinnitus, a chronic ringing in the ears when no sound is present.
Tinnitus affects nearly 50 million Americans, according to the American Tinnitus Association. Drowning out the ringing with high energy beats seems like a pretty fun way to find relief, but could pulling a Baby Driver and blasting music into your already damaged ears actually make things worse?
"The perception of phantom sounds (i.e., tinnitus) can sometimes be temporarily 'masked' with environmental sound," Dan Polley, a Harvard researcher and the director of the Lauer Tinnitus Research Center, told me in an email. "The masking sound (particularly in the form of loud music through earbuds) could do more damage, which creates a vicious cycle."
Polley had to get back to some last-minute grant writing so I did a little more research. There are a couple of reasons why cranking up your earbuds to cover tinnitus is a bad idea, but luckily there are ways that music can be therapeutic to sufferers.
The first issue is that some tinnitus is caused by hearing loss, which can be caused by exposure to loud sounds. It's common for musicians and music buffs to suffer from tinnitus after years of blasting their eardrums. Listening to high decibel sounds could cause more damage and actually make tinnitus worse.
But even if you don't do any damage to your hearing with your daily beats injection, drowning out the ringing can make it seem worse when you finally take your earbuds out, according to the British Tinnitus Association. Instead, experts recommend people with tinnitus play music or sound at a level slightly lower than their ringing. This helps encourage habituation, which is when your brain gets so used to the ringing that it stops paying attention to it. Habituation is harder to achieve when you regularly drown out the noise.
So go ahead and rock out to your own soundtrack, but you might not want it cranked up quite as loud as Baby.
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