What happens when sounds exist inside your head?

How do you cope with an internal soundtrack from which you can’t escape and only you can hear?

These questions are explored in White Noise, a new Documentary On One production that investigates the mysterious world of people who suffer from tinnitus and the impact it has on their lives. Tinnitus, currently an incurable condition, is the experience of hearing sounds in the brain that don’t have an external source.

According to documentary maker Orla Higgins, ‘One in ten of the Irish population have tinnitus and one in a hundred people are seriously affected by it. These figures are also reflected internationally where it is estimated that over 300 million people have the condition which can have a debilitating effect on people’s work, their relationships and how they live their lives with this secret symphony going on in their heads.’

Higgins was prompted to make the documentary when she herself was diagnosed with tinnitus almost two years ago. ‘I began to notice an intermittent sound in my head that, over time, became a constant presence. You’ll hear tinnitus sufferers talk about ‘their sound’ and mine resembles stormtrooper boots marching on loose gravel, if you can imagine that. Then I began to wonder who else had it and how could they cope with the unwelcome and unnerving sounds in their heads without it driving them over the edge?’ She collaborated with RTÉ producer Kevin Bew, who also suffers from the condition, to recreate the sounds of the tinnitus experience and explore the science surrounding it.

Tinnitus sufferers hear a wide variety of these sounds from whines, crackles and whooshes to static, dentist drills and pounding jackhammers. Higgins explains that one of the challenges is that we can’t understand what people with tinnitus are going through unless we have experienced it ourselves. With this in mind, the documentary takes an innovative approach to the subject by placing the listener in the position of someone with the condition. A group of volunteers worked with sound designer Damian Chennells and Audiologist Tasso Papadopoulos from DeafHear (an Irish charity that provides services to people with hearing loss) to recreate these phantom sounds for the audience.

There is no agreed cause and no agreed cure for the condition and the documentary tells the story of Sean O’Reilly whose life was turned upside down in the space of a week with the onset of sudden and unexplained tinnitus. It explores his journey of recovery as he works to reclaim his life along with Tinnitus Therapist, Jennifer Healy.

Fortunately, the vast majority of people manage to eventually adjust to these phantom sounds they hear but sometimes catastrophic tinnitus takes its toll. It becomes too much for some and the listener hears from the letter written by Welshman James Ivor Jones who was driven to take his own life because of his tinnitus in 2015.  

Along the way the listener also gets an insight in to the weird and wonderful world of the brain and the hearing senses from David Baguley, Professor of Hearing Sciences at the University of Nottingham. A lot of people with tinnitus, once diagnosed, are left to develop an understanding and way of coping by themselves and this proves to be one of the biggest obstacles to recovery. ‘There is no agreed cure at the moment’, says Kevin Brew, ‘but we take a look at the different ways people can cope with the condition. We also hear from ENT consultant Brendan Conlon about some ground-breaking Irish research currently taking place at St. James Hospital that might hopefully form part of the answer when it comes to a cure in the future.’

Since first broadcast, White Noise has won a Silver Award at the 2019 New York Festivals Radio Awards.

Narrated by Orla Higgins

Produced by Orla Higgins & Kevin Brew

Sound Supervision & Sound Design by Damian Chennells

If you have been affected by anything you have heard in this documentary, you can contact The Samaritans at Freephone: 116 123  Text: 087 260 9090 Website: www.samaritans.org


First broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1, June 30th, 2018, @2pm RTÉ Radio 1,

An Irish radio documentary from RTÉ Radio 1, Ireland - Documentary on One, the home of Irish radio documentaries.