Audio: The neuroscience of sound design
Drew Gula
Issue: July/August 2020

Audio: The neuroscience of sound design

Humans are visual creatures, or so the saying goes. But anyone who has worked in video production knows that sound design has just as much impact as the visuals do. It’s something that every director (like Shazam’s David F. Sandberg) swears by, and there’s a big reason why.

Scientists have spent years studying how the human brain receives, processes and reacts to sound. That research reveals how sound can influence a person’s response to what they watch, which makes it an invaluable tool for editors.

And when it comes to using sound effects — the subtle cues that can immerse a viewer — the data shows that even a little bit of effort goes a long way.

How sound design influences culture

Filmmaking falls somewhere between “art” and “magic”. In one sense, the act of creating a film involves dozens (sometimes hundreds) of people working together, collaborating on a singular vision. All of these skill sets come together to build something no one person could make alone.

The magic side of that process comes in post production. Suddenly, the focus switches from creating art to convincing audiences to believe in things that are clearly fictionalized. Millions of people fell in love with Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar because they were able to fully immerse themselves in a fictional place.

Avatar’s sound designer, Chris Boyes, has broken down the specifics of how he built the world Pandora. But the clearest takeaway is that sound effects convince the human brain to accept what’s on screen, even if that includes blue aliens riding dinosaurs on some faraway planet. 

According to sound editor Marvin Kerner, a key function of sound design is “to simulate reality.” What that looks like will vary based on the film, but the principle is to use sound effects to make a scene so believable that the human brain ignores the fact that something is impossible or unrealistic.

Part of a sound designer’s job is matching a visual with the expected sound. In the case of Star Wars, that means explosions and screaming T.I.E. fighters in the vacuum of space; in the case of war films, that means redubbing gunfire and other combat sounds.

Hollywood has shaped the public perception of certain sounds by creating expectations for certain sounds, even if they don’t line up with reality. But that certainly validates the research of how sound design draws audiences into a film.

How sound design affects the brain

Scientists have always seen correlations between music and mood, but modern neuroscience has started to peel back the layers of mystery. In fact, there’s even a dedicated branch of research to this phenomenon: psychoacoustics

There are five sections of the brain that are affected by sound:

- The temporal lobe, or the brain’s language center
- The frontal lobe, where decisions are made
- The cerebrum, where memories are stored
- The cerebellum, which directs physical responses
- The limbic system, or the emotional response center

According to Scientific American, sound is one of the biggest external influences on how humans think and feel. By affecting the limbic system in particular, sounds produce dopamine in the same ways that people feel after a workout, a good meal, sex or drugs.

Editors already know how critical post production is, but neuroscientific research is continuing to add more and more weight to sound design for film. Creating the right sonic texture isn’t just a tool for drawing an audience into a scene, building tension or pulling in off-screen elements — it’s a way to literally control how viewers experience and respond to a film at a physiological level.

Of course, that kind of influence boosts the value of good sound design. As long as there are directors telling stories, there will be a need for the science of sound design. And that gives editors an opportunity to transform those stories into powerful, immersive experiences.

Drew Gula is the copywriter at Soundstripe (, a company that makes royalty free music and sound effects to help content creators produce better videos.