A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is it possible to hear radio broadcasts through your teeth?

December 4, 1992

Dear Cecil:

Everybody has heard that in the early days of radio broadcasting, there were people who received broadcasts through their teeth. A psychologist who is writing about it in a forthcoming book told me that he could no find no actual or authentic case. I recall the play Something for the Boys in 1944 with Ethel Merman, and the movie of the play with Carmen Miranda, in which the actresses pretended they heard broadcasts. Indefatigable researcher that I am, I finally located an item in the 1934 New York Times index, "Ukrainian complains his ears register broadcast sounds." Is there anything to such stories or are the human receiving sets candidates for the loony bin?

Cecil replies:

What's the big deal? Sometimes my ears register broadcast sounds. The difference with the Ukrainian (no name given) mentioned in the two-paragraph Times item you cited is that he was able to do it without benefit of a radio. A resident of the Brazilian state of Parana, he was seeking medical help because "his ears, radio-like, register broadcast sounds; in fact, he is a walking antenna."

One of the famous Brazil nuts, right? The Times evidently thought so. The item continues, "In these hard times, when many would like to own but cannot afford to buy a radio, it is held that this Ukrainian should feel highly elated in owning an irremovable receiving-set. On the contrary, however, he wishes to be rid of this gift or to be at least provided with means of shutting it off. He asserts it is injuring his health because the noises keep him awake at all hours of the night."

That's the story with most "human antennae" — no one takes them seriously. I went through the medical journals from 1928 to the present and found only a few brief mentions. "In most cases, where the [radio-generated] hearing phenomena were accessible to controlled experimentation, the effects could be explained as artifacts," one article notes. But no references or other information were given. I'd write the whole thing off as folklore except for one thing: one of Cecil's associates got to talking about this on (fittingly) the radio, and within minutes got leads on two people who said it happened to them.

Case #1. George, of suburban Chicago, lost a front tooth at the age of 12. A year or so later, in about 1961, he was fitted with a cap that was attached to the tooth stump with what George recalls as a brass wire. Thereafter he began hearing music in his head, generally popular tunes of the day, usually while he was outdoors. The music was soft but distinct. He never heard an announcer's voice or commercials and was unable to identify what radio station, if any, he was hearing. After a year or two of this a new dentist put in a cap without a wire and the tunes stopped.

Case #2. Lois, also of suburban Chicago, says it happened just once, in 1947, while she was riding a train from her home in Cleveland to college in Rhode Island at about age 18. The experience lasted maybe 10 minutes. She couldn't tell what station she was listening to but recalls hearing commercials and an announcer's voice. She has silver tooth fillings but doesn't recall if she'd had one put in just before the event.

Delusions? Maybe, but both George and Lois seemed perfectly sane. Neurologist Oliver Sacks has suggested epileptic hallucinations, but his patients with experiences like this were elderly and the music was loud, whereas George and Lois were young at the time and the sounds were soft.

We know that (1) radiators, faucets, etc., (but not, it is generally thought, silver tooth fillings) can act as radio receivers under certain conditions; (2) people can be made to "hear" (poorly) through stimulation with electrodes and via bone conduction from the teeth; and (3) test subjects hear buzzing when irradiated with UHF and VHF radio pulses from 100 feet. (Shielding the subject's teeth didn't stop the buzzing, but shielding their temples did.) Granted, it's a long leap from all this to say folks can hear radio broadcasts in their heads. But the American Dental Association says it gets an inquiry on this topic roughly every six weeks. The whole business deserves more thorough investigation than it apparently got.

LUCYYYYYYYYYY!

I've learned actress Lucille Ball claimed to have heard radio broadcasts during World War II — she even said that because of this she was able to help nab Japanese spies using a secret transmitter. Lucy mentioned her experience to Ethel Merman, who had it written into the musical she starred in a short time later, Cole Porter's Something for the Boys, mentioned in the letter above. Read all about it on snopes at http://www.snopes.com/radiotv/tv/fillings.htm.

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