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What’s That Sound You Hear When You Shut Your Eyes Tightly?

What's the sound you hear when you shut your eyes tight?

Science

What’s That Sound You Hear When You Shut Your Eyes Tightly?

It’s the sound that usually occurs when you shut your eyes tightly or flex your jaw muscles in a certain way. It sounds like a low rumbling or a 747 passing by. But what is it exactly? And is it harmful?

It’s the sound that usually occurs when you shut your eyes tightly or flex your jaw muscles in a certain way. It sounds like a low rumbling or a 747 passing by. One young reader sent us this question, and wanted us to explore this little life mystery. She asks, “What’s that sound you hear when you shut your eyes tightly? Is it harmful?

Blame A Muscle

The sound you are hearing is produced by the tensor tympani muscle in your ear. It’s main function is to dampen sounds produced by your own chewing.

It is possible to contract this muscle voluntarily which produces vibrations and thus the sound. Slow twitch muscle fibers produce 10 to 30 contractions per second. The fast twitch muscle fibers produce 30 to 70 contractions per second. These contractions produce the sound you hear.

tensor tympani muscleTo see an example of this effect, just tighten your fist as tight as you can and hold it in that tensed position. The tremors and vibrations you will see are the exact same thing that’s happening in your ear when you clench down on your jaw real hard.

If you place that tightened up fist near your ear, you might be able to hear the same sound if you listen very carefully in a quiet room. The sound from your fist’s muscles will sound like a low rumbling noise. Some people can voluntarily produce this effect by contracting their tensor tympani muscle. The sound can also be heard when the eyes are closed tight, or when the neck/jaw muscles are highly tensed – like when yawning deeply.

Flexing this muscle or holding the sound for extended lengths of time is not harmful or damaging to the ear in any way. The only way a person could get permanent, sensorineural hearing loss from the contraction of the middle ear muscles is if they both came from a common cause, like a tumor.

Ear Popping

Some people are also able to pop their ears at will, without having to hold their nose and blow. This isn’t because of the tensor tympani though, it’s thanks to a different muscle called the Salpingopharyngeus muscle. It’s primary function is to raise the pharynx and larynx during swallowing. It is also responsible for the equalization of pressure between the auditory canal and the pharynx.

Bonus Facts:

  • Last year, Lasha Patraya of Georgia set a world record for the strongest ears by pulling an 8 ton truck 70 feet with his ears.
  • While Caucasians and Africans are more likely to have wetter, darker earwax, Asians and American Indians have flaky, dry, earwax thanks to the ATP-binding cassette C11 gene.

References:
Vibrations and sounds from evoked muscle twitches., Electromyogr Clin Neurophysiol. 1992 Jan-Feb;32(1-2):35-40.
Information on Tinnitus Hyperacusis

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Donna

    April 16, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    In the 1950’s, I’d drown out sound of my folks fighting by making thunder/rumbling sounds in my ears. Now I know how this works inside ears. Always thought it was odd but many people can do it.

    • Person

      October 7, 2014 at 4:33 pm

      I can do that too! I love it. I wonder why only some people can do it. When I was a little kid I thought I was crazy. I can also wiggle my ears independently without my fingers.

  2. TiagoTiago

    June 22, 2013 at 3:43 am

    I can make those rumbling sounds at will, but it doesn’t happen when I tighten my jaw muscle, nor when I squint very hard. Though I do get a different sound, it’s a high-pitched hiss, much quieter than the rumble; I can’t keep it going for as long as the rumble though, and I can’t make it happen on it’s own, just coupled to tightening of the jaw muscles. Any clues what it could be?

  3. jeremiah

    July 19, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    I can also make my ear pop, but I can make the rumble sound without closing my eyes.

  4. Name

    July 24, 2013 at 2:06 am

    Push your tongue against the front roof of your mouth (behind your two front teeth) very hard while biting down and you can sustain the sound for long periods of time. Good for drowning out crowd noises, etc…

  5. Amy

    October 7, 2013 at 10:39 am

    Thanks for this, I’ve been wondering this my entire life!

  6. Rochelle Roe

    April 19, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    I am an audiologist, and we talked about this in grad school. It’s been a while, but I believe that the reason that some people can hear the rumbling while others can’t is because of differences in how the facial (7th) and acoustic (8th) nerve innervate differently in different people. I wish I could remember more of the details, but that was the explanation.

    • Steven

      February 20, 2017 at 12:54 pm

      Yep, definitely a nerve thing, in my experience you can actually have both states in a single person:

      I started hearing this in one ear after I had Bell’s Palsy in the left side of my face. Still can’t get a noise in my right ear, and it’s incredibly annoying in my left, day to day facial movements even cause it to some degree. Clearly something changed in my nerves and never went back, even years later after most of my facial muscles recovered decently. Though to be honest even my face didn’t recover anything like the supposed ‘typical’ case, so I’ve never been sure there wasn’t more going on.

  7. Tom

    March 12, 2017 at 4:59 pm

    I get that rumbling or surging sound in my ears while falling asleep at night; leg surges produce the rumbling sound. Does this happen to anyone else?

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