Can These Sounds Actually Make You Sick?  

Drew Grant
1.6k views 8 items

In late May, American ambassadors at the Chinese embassy fell ill, suffering from a strange illness that had all the signs of a concussion or head trauma: headache, nausea, vertigo and hearing loss after hearing. Maybe not so weird in itself–save for the fact that the Ambassador hadn't been hit over the head recently– this incident may have been dismissed completely, had it not been for two things.

One: the illness had been preceded by strange events, described to The New York Times as "disturbing sensations of sounds and vibrations that have been described variously as the noises made by cicadas, static, metal sheets waving or...marbles rolling around a metal funnel."

Two: The strange incident in China wasn't an isolated case; since 2016, American ambassadors in Cuba, along with their families, have been complaining of the same events and symptoms.

Is it a targeted attack on Americans overseas, a sonic coincidence or something possibly far worse... the beginning of a noise sickness pandemic? China has already sent out a health alert for residents in Guangzhou, a wealthy district where the ambassadors fell ill. 

The idea of a "sonic attack" may sound scary, but it's almost inconceivable to imagine a sonic weapon capable of only targeting Americans in a large city without causing collateral damage on a nation's own people. (That's why the current popular theory is that it's the American boogeyman causing the attacks....Russia.) 

Is there a precedent for sound sickness and how does it work? And which sounds can actually make someone sick? Find out below.

The 'Brown Note'
The 'Brown Note' is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Can These Sounds Actually Make You Sick?
Photo: Mythbusters

Status: Debunked.

Useage: The "brown note" is a subsonic frequency around 9 Hertz (Hz) that, according to popular myth, causes people to immediately poop their pants. And just like the current sound sickness in American embassies, the origin of the brown note was sound weaponry: allegedly created in World War II to disable soldiers, who would be too busy evacuating their bowels to fight Nazis.

However, an episode of Mythbusters laid out that while the note, when played loud enough, can make a listener feel disoriented, it does not necessarily give you the urge to take a poo.

Sound Lasers
Sound Lasers is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Can These Sounds Actually Make You Sick?
Photo: Viv Lynch/flickr/CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Status: Active

Useage: The "sonic laser" is actually something called a M.A.D., or a Magnetic Acoustic Device. It converts electrical pulses into sound waves that can effectively target ranges from thousands of feet away...kind of like Banshee from X-Men. American soldiers used them in Iraq to disperse crowds,

The problem with M.A.D. is that it worked too well. In 2005, Israel began rolling out something they called "SHOPHAR: The scream": hexagonal sonic trumpets that could blast at targets 75 meters away. These were used in skirmishes with the West Bank, and left protesters feeling "dizzy and nauseated."

The Mosquito
The Mosquito is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list Can These Sounds Actually Make You Sick?
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Status: Active and annoying.

Useage: Essentially, the same technology as the Sonic Laser, but only (allegedly) audible to those 25 years or younger, the Mosquito was the UK's answer to teen loitering issues. The Mosquito, which arrived in 2008 by Compound Security, has two settings: 17.4 kHz, which drove the youngins away and an 8 kHz frequency that can be heard by almost everyone. Currently, it is still being used as a deterrent for anyone spending their time in high-crime areas.

Long Range Acoustic Device
Long Range Acoustic Device is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list Can These Sounds Actually Make You Sick?
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Status: Active

Useage: The Long Ranged Acoustic Device or LRAD blasts a loud, shrill sound that can disable and damage the hearing of anyone within range. The device, shaped like a small satellite dish, is capable of broadcasting emergency warnings or blasting a dangerous sonic frequency. America flirted with the idea of using LARADs on its own citizens after Hurricane Katrina and the device has been used on ships to repel Somali pirates although their effectiveness is up for debate.