I enjoy quietness. I always have. I like a quiet working environment, and very rarely listen to music when I am focussing. However, for the past year or so, my peace has been broken by an insistent, pulsing, singing, hissing sound.
It started around February last year, quite suddenly. I could hear a loud singing/hissing sound that pulsed in time with my own heartbeat. I could tell right away that it wasn’t a sound from the external environment, and I initially thought that it might be sinusitis, since I had just had a heavy cold. When the sound didn’t go after a few weeks, I visited the doctor, which started a round of investigations including a camera up the nose (odd), blood tests, a hearing test, a CT scan (much quicker than I thought it would be) and finally a MRI (which made me feel more claustrophobic than I thought it would).
It seemed likely that what I was experiencing was pulsatile tinnitus, but given that this is a rarer form of tinnitus, and is occasionally associated with metabolic conditions (like anaemia or thyroid issues), or benign brain tumours, these causes needed to be ruled out with blood tests and scans. I finally got the all-clear — in the sense that my tinnitus had no sinister cause, in fact, no discernible cause at all — a couple of weeks ago.
I’m very grateful that it is nothing life-threatening, but I’m still left with the aggravation of tinnitus. It’s a really odd condition: essentially, your auditory system becomes over-sensitive and boosts the gain on your hearing, which results in you hearing sounds inside your own body of which you are usually unaware. My tinnitus pulses because I am hearing (for some unknown reason) my own blood pulsing through the blood vessels of my head. It is sometimes associated with hearing loss, and my tests showed that I have lost quite a bit of sensitivity to the highest frequencies. What’s not clear is whether I’m getting the tinnitus because of the hearing loss, or whether the tinnitus is masking high frequency sounds and making them hard to hear.
On advice from the audiologist, I’m going to try wearable sound generators, which habituates the auditory system to the tinnitus sound and may make it less intrusive over time. In the meantime, I’m trying another tip he suggested, which is to listen to quiet ambient sounds over headphones when I’m in quiet environments.
There are lots of apps which provide this kind of thing, some of them marketed as tinnitus treatments, and some just as meditation or ‘focus’ apps. I looked at a lot of them and tried a few, and in case you are in need of such a thing, I can highly recommend one: TaoMix 2 for iOS. What I really liked about this app was the quality and realism of the sounds, and the fact that you can create a random soundscape, so you don’t get irritating looping of sequences if you listen for extended periods.
The interface takes a little while to get to grips with. There are a number of themed ‘soundpacks’, from which to choose sounds, but actually you can add together any of the sounds as long as you don’t mind the cognitive dissonance1 involved in having, say, your ‘Autumn stroll in the forest’ punctuated by whale song. The mixes you make are saved as custom sets so that you can play them repeatedly. You can add as many copies of each source sound as you like, and you place them as circles on a sound space. The area of each can be expanded or shrunk, which changes the prominence of that sound in your mix. When you hit play, a cursor wanders in a random path over the sound space, fading each sound in and out as it crosses the circle representing it. Bigger circles therefore tend to get played for longer, and are more likely to be encountered by the cursor. The result is a very natural sounding and pleasant mix, that doesn’t get annoying over fairly long periods. You can also adjust the master volume in the settings, which means that you can set the sound to be quite quiet: for tinnitus, it is recommended that the sounds should be slightly quieter (subjectively) than your tinnitus sounds.
I’ve played around with a few of the packs, but tend to come back to three of them:
- Autumn stroll in the forest. This has bird song, the sound of wind in the trees, creaking branches, and water flowing in small streams. You can also add the sound of footsteps through fallen leaves, but that made me feel like someone was creeping up on me!
- An evening by the fireplace. This has crackling logs on a fire, rain hitting a window pane, a purring cat, the pages of a book turning, and an analogue clock ticking. This one is lovely, but sometimes a bit too relaxing, so I tend to use it when I’m reading in the evening, rather than working.
- Buzzing cafe. All the usual sounds of a busy coffee shop. The sound of conversation is very cleverly designed so that you can’t make out what is being said, so it just drifts into the background. I thought I would find this annoying (as I often do the sound of real coffee shops), but at a low volume, it is quite effective.
Occasionally I wander into the Japanese garden, or windy marina soundpacks, but the three above are my most used sets. If you are into crystal singing bowls, wind chimes, whale song or Tibetan monasteries, then you will also be well catered for. Some of those sounds are probably much better for meditation purposes than as a background sound mix. You can also record and add your own sounds to add to any of the mixes, and there’s a timer to play for a specified period, if you want to use it to help you to fall asleep.
If you’re in need of background sounds (for whatever reason) I highly recommend it.2 You can download it free with the ‘Essential pack’, and then either purchase individual sound packs, or make a one-off payment for all current and future sound packs (currently £4.99 on the UK store). I did the latter, as it’s good value for such a high quality app.