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August 2012 Issue
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For crying out loud

The ‘power scream’, as it’s known by climbers, is a common occurrence in all outdoor adventure sports. But have you ever stopped to wonder what it is?  

I’m sure everyone’s done it at one point in time, you’re clinging on by your fingertips on the crux of a climb you’ve been working all summer, or desperately bracing to keep your kayak upright in the surf… or perhaps you’re just lifting a thirty-kilo pack in the morning and it just blurts out: ‘URRGH!’

Depending on when and where you choose to unleash your primal scream, it can be pretty embarrassing and leading to all sorts of wise cracks from your mates (“Hey, Serena Williams called, she wants her grunt back… and her bum”). But according to experts, the joke may be on them – because it works.

According to ethno-musicologist Joseph Jordania, millions of years ago primal screams, much like the modern-day power-scream, would have been part of the ‘Audio-Visual Intimidating Display’ that our ancestors used to scare away predators for safety and for profit.

Jordania theorises that back in the days when we weren’t always at the top of the food chain we’d get together as a tribe and howl at the tops of our lungs at whatever was eyeing us up for a meal, hoping that our intimidation would outweigh its appetite.

If we were feeling particularly bold – or particularly hungry – the same techniques could be used to scare a predator away from its kill, effectively using sheer bravado to steal a meal.

But as the cleverest monkeys in all of Africa, we didn’t stop there. As we evolved, those primitive howls become the chants and cries that rang out over battle fields as our ancestors stabbed, strangled and bludgeoned their way into the modern age. With a few thousand years more refinement they eventually became the complex, multi-layered music we listen to today.

The great works of modern music like Wagner’s Ride of the Valkries might seem utterly disconnected from anything we would have yelled at a sabre-toothed tiger, despite the slightly bloodthirsty subject matter.  But if you go to some more contemporary material like say Rage Against the Machine’s Bulls on Parade then the connection becomes pretty obvious. In fact it’s just this sort of music that you’ll hear playing inside Humvees and APCs in Iraq and Afghanistan today, serving as a sort of pre-recorded battle cry.

After a few million years of screaming, the cultural connection is pretty compelling but it goes deeper than that; our bodies and minds are actually ‘tuned in’ to screaming.

According to physiotherapist Louise Parker, when we power-scream we’re actually doing what’s known as ‘the Valsalva manoeuvre’ where by forcefully exhaling air against contracted vocal chords or pursed lips we temporarily pressurise our lungs. This pressurised balloon of air gives us an added bit of core strength, the same way a pressurised fuselage adds strength to an aircraft’s structure.

“If you want to hit something really hard – or are about to be hit by something really hard, then yelling at the time isn’t a bad idea,” Parker says.

Associate Professor Marc Wilson from Victoria University Wellington’s School of Psychology says that “vociferation” can also have a positive psychological effect – if you use it wisely.

He says athletes will frequently use vociferation as part of a training routine. Then in competition that familiar scream helps to maintain a sense of control and a positive frame of mind – and it puts the willies up the competition too.

That association can also spill over into the physical realm. If you’ve developed an association between screaming and a fight-or-flight response (as many people will have informally done throughout their lives), then you can potentially use vociferation to trigger that response, priming your body with adrenalin before a competition.

However, Wilson cautions: “It does take a lot of energy… if your [pre-competition] ritual is a couple of hours long then you might find you’re knackered before you even start.”

So there you have it. Next time you’re out playing hard in the wilderness and you let out an inadvertent power scream, don’t be embarrassed – it’s good to let it all out every now and then.