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February 12, 2008

BehindTheMedspeak: Can noise-canceling headphones make you sick?


What the hey? is what I thought when I came across a Q. & A. about this in Melinda Beck's "Health Mailbox" feature in today's Wall Street Journal.

Long answer short: Yes.

After I read Ms. Beck's piece I realized I knew as much — or more — about the subject as anyone else.

Pretty good knowledge upgrade in return for two minutes of my time.

Here's the Q. & A.

    Q: I was recently given a pair of the Bose QC3 headphones [smaller earphones at top] with active noise canceling, and have felt queasy every time I put them on. I had to take them off and lie down at one point, and ended up throwing up later that night and was unable to eat more than apple sauce the next day. As crazy as it sounds, did the headphones cause my discomfort?

    A: It's possible. Bose's "Acoustic Noise Cancelling" headphones work by electronically determining the difference between wanted and unwanted sounds, and creating a correction signal that acts to negate the unwanted noise, according to its Web site. (The company didn't respond to requests to comment.) Sarah Stackpole, a New York ear, nose and throat doctor, speculates that the sound waves that cancel each other out may still transmit enough very low frequency vibrations to stimulate the balance receptors that are connected to the hearing hair cells in the inner ear. These vibrations are akin to those caused by blast explosions or barotrauma in scuba diving, but much less forceful, she says. The disequilibrium that some people may feel from this is made worse because the vibrations falsely signal that the head is moving, but the eyes report that the head is stationary. Those mixed signals make the headphone wearer feel dizzy.

    Some people are more sensitive to this sensation than others. Many users love their headsets. If the vertigo doesn't improve, you may need to decrease the input by using earphones without a tight seal.



The exchange above appears on page three of today's WSJ Personal Journal section.

Turn the page and you're greeted by page five's full page ad for that very model of Bose noise-canceling headphones.

No question but what the editorial and advertising departments of the paper are walled-off, after seeing that.

Probably not for much longer, though, once the gobsmacked Bose grand panjandrums recover their balance (take off the headphones, boys!) and get on the horn to Rupert.

One more thing: the Bose model referred to above (QC3) is the on-ear version.

The original around-the-ear version, the QC2 (larger earphones at top), would seem to offer an even more disorienting experience, since it seals off the outside world to a greater degree than the QC3.

February 12, 2008 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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I would suspect that the lack of audio cues to your environment are more likely the cause. As johnjohn says, anechoic chambers are very disorienting.

Think how you can tell a lot about the space around you with your eyes shut. Walk into a room in the dark and you can tell at once whether it's a large volume or small. I think the brain uses these clues more than we suspect and being deprived of them is what's causing this effect. Even just wearing ordinary earmuffs can leave you strangely adrift.

Posted by: Skipweasel | Feb 13, 2008 3:11:41 PM

I have not experienced any of these maladies reported in this article with my Bose "on ear" QC3 headphones.

Posted by: | Feb 13, 2008 6:29:40 AM

IANAD, but anechoic chambers are notorious for inducing disorientation and nausea in a certain percentage of individuals, which makes me wonder if the headphones are just eliciting a similar response with some people, rather than being due to spurious low frequencies.

Posted by: johnjohn | Feb 12, 2008 11:58:45 PM

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