Can These Sounds Actually Make You Sick?

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'
    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
    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

    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

    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.

  • Canon Sonique

    Status: Inactive

    Useage: Infrasound is the cause for the mythical "brown note": it plays at levels so subsonic that it resonates less with your ears than your entire body. The first recorded use of infrasound effects was by Vladimir Gavreau in 1957 to help create a weapon for the French. The "canon sonique" consisted of piston driven tubes and smaller compressed air horns and whistles, and when Gavreau decided to self-test it on him and his team at their Marseilles plant, it was such a success that a member was apparently killed immediately, his insides turning to goo. "His internal organs… mashed into an amorphous jelly by the vibrations” Gavreau wrote, adding "Luckily, we were able to turn it off quickly. All of us were sick for hours. Everything in us was vibrating: stomach, heart, lungs. All the people in the other laboratories were sick too. They were very angry with us. “

  • Luftkanon

    Photo: Stalker

    Status: Inactive

    Useage: The first known audio weapon to be deployed during wartime, the German "Luftkanon" or "Wirbelwind Kanonew" was used near the end of World War II to create a sound vortex that could shoot down enemy planes. The weapon included:

    “…a parabolic reflector, 3.2 meters in diameter, having a short tube which was the combustion chamber or sound generator, extending to the rear from the vertex of the parabola. The chamber was fed at the rear by two coaxial nozzles, the outer nozzle emitting methane, and the central nozzle oxygen. The length of the chamber was one-quarter the wavelength of the sound in air. Upon initiation, the first shock wave was reflected back from the open end of the chamber and initiated the second explosion. The frequency was from 800 to 1500 impulses per second. The main lobe of the sound intensity pattern had a 65 degree angle of opening, and at 60 meters’ distance on the axis a pressure of 1000 microbars had been measured. No physiological experiments were conducted, but it was estimated that at such a pressure it would take from 30 to 40 seconds to kill a man. At greater ranges, perhaps up to 300 meters, the effect, although not lethal, would be very painful and would probably disable a man for an appreciable length of time. Vision would be affected, and low-level exposures would cause point sources of light to appear as lines.”

    Most information about the Luftkanon has been lost to history except that it was allegedly unsuccessful at shooting down enemy aircraft.