I SCREAM, YOU scream, we all scream. For ice cream, sure, but also for fear, excitement, sexual pleasure, pain, anger, and—if online commenters are to be believed—memes 😱. Screaming is exhibited by many animals, but no species uses this extreme vocalization in as many different contexts as humans. Though we're pretty good at recognizing a scream when we hear one, the wide variety of screams makes it difficult to pin down what defines them.
To study screams is to probe the fuzzy boundary that separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. It is a way to explore our prelinguistic past. Although we are fully symbolic creatures today, on occasion a trace of our primal selves bubbles to the surface in the form of a scream. Understanding its characteristics could improve the treatment of nonverbal patients, help fight crime, or simply make movies more frightening. But first scientists need to explain what makes a scream a scream.
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