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Why Does Inhaling Helium Make Your Voice Sound Funny?

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Helium's atomic number is 2 and its atomic weight is 4.002602. Its boiling and melting points— -452.1°F and -458.0°F, respectively—are the lowest among the elements. It is the second most abundant element in the known universe (after hydrogen). And it makes your voice sound really funny when you inhale it. Here's why.

A Crash Course in Sound

When you speak, air travels up from your lungs and through the larynx, where it meets the vocal cords (or vocal folds), twin infoldings of mucous membrane stretched horizontally across the larynx, and hits the underside, causing them to vibrate. The vibration of the cords excites air molecules in your vocal tract and sets up resonant frequencies. The vibration of the vocal cords influences the pitch (the perceived fundamental frequency of a sound) of your voice; the vibration of the air in the vocal tract influences your voice's timbre (the quality of a sound that distinguishes different types of sound production—remember that for later, it will be important); and manipulation of the vocal tract—moving your tongue, lips, etc.—creates different resonant frequencies and allows you to make the different sounds of speech, like "oohs" and "aahs." Your voice finally leaves your mouth in the form of waves, oscillations of pressure transmitted through a medium.

Voice, Meet Helium

In addition to the vibrations and manipulations that influence the sound of your voice, what another person hears when you speak also depends in part on what the space where the sound is created contains. The air that fills a room where you might be speaking to someone is made up of roughly 78.08 percent nitrogen, 20.95 percent oxygen, 0.93 percent argon, 0.038 percent carbon dioxide, and tiny amounts of other gases. Nitrogen, which makes up the majority of our air, has a mass roughly seven times greater than that of helium. Because helium is lighter than air, sound waves travel through it faster. In a room where the temperature is 68 degrees Fahrenheit, sound travels at 344 meters a second through air, but 927 meters a second through helium. When you inhale helium, you're changing the type of gas molecules in your vocal tract and increasing the speed of the sound of your voice.

Some people think that helium changes the pitch of your voice, but the vibration frequency of the vocal cords doesn't change along with the type of gas molecules that surround them. When your vocal tract is filled with helium, your vocal cords are vibrating at the same frequency as usual. It's actually the timbre (again, the quality of a sound that distinguishes different types of sound, also known as tone quality or tone color) that changes, because those lighter-than-air helium molecules allow sound to travel faster and change the resonances of your vocal tract by making it more responsive to high-frequency sounds and less responsive to lower ones. Your voice winds up flat and Donald Duck-esque and listeners perceive this as a change in pitch.

More Fun With Gases

If a lighter gas like helium gives us a squeaky-sounding voice, you might to assume that a heavier-than-air gas would amplify the lower resonant frequencies and make it deeper and richer (trading Donald Duck for Barry White, if you will). You'd be correct; gases like xenon and sulfur hexafluoride slow the speed of sound and lower the resonant frequencies of your vocal tract. 

No Fun With Gas

As amusing as the results are, inhaling helium is not so great for you. While you're inhaling it, you're not getting the oxygen you need for normal respiration. Breathing helium continuously can cause asphyxiation within a few minutes. That light-headed feeling you get from a few inhalations is a sign you need to take a break. And please don't ever inhale helium directly from one of those pressurized tanks. The high flow rate can rupture your lung tissue or send a concentrated mass of gas into your bloodstream, after which it can lodge in the brain and cause a stroke, seizures and death.

This story originally appeared in 2009.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Could the Repeal of Net Neutrality Mean for Internet Users?
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What could the repeal of net neutrality mean for the average American internet user?

Zouhair Belkoura:

The imminent repeal of net neutrality could have implications for Americans beyond the Internet’s stratification, increased costs to consumers, and hindered access to content for all. Net neutrality’s repeal is a threat to the Internet’s democracy—the greatest information equalizer of our time.

With net neutrality’s repeal, ISPs could be selective about the content and pricing packages they make available. Portugal is a good example of what a country looks like without net neutrality

What people may not realize is that a repeal of net neutrality would also give ISPs the ability to throttle people’s Internet traffic. Customers won’t likely have visibility into what traffic is being throttled, and it could substantially slow down people’s Internet connections.

What happens when this type of friction is introduced to the system? The Internet—the greatest collective trove of information in the world—could gradually be starved. People who experience slower Internet speeds may get frustrated and stop seeking out their favorite sites. People may also lose the ability to make choices about the content they want to see and the knowledge they seek.

Inflated pricing, less access to knowledge, and slower connections aren’t the only impact a net neutrality repeal might have. People’s personal privacy and corporations’ security may suffer, too. Many people use virtual private networks to protect their privacy. VPNs keep people’s Internet browsing activities invisible to their ISPs and others who may track them. They also help them obscure their location and encrypt online transactions to keep personal data secure. When people have the privacy that VPNs afford, they can access information freely without worrying about being watched, judged, or having their browsing activity bought and sold by third-party advertisers.

Virtual private networks are also a vital tool for businesses that want to keep their company data private and secure. Employees are often required by their employers to connect to a VPN whenever they are offsite and working remotely.

Even the best VPNs can slow down individuals' Internet connections, because they create an encrypted tunnel to protect and secure personal data. If people want to protect their personal privacy or company’s security with a VPN [they] also must contend with ISP throttling; it’s conceivable that net neutrality’s repeal could undermine people’s freedom to protect their online safety. It could also render the protection a VPN offers to individuals and companies obsolete.

Speed has always been a defining characteristic of the Internet’s accessibility and its power. Net neutrality’s repeal promises to subvert this trait. It would compromise both people's and companies’ ability to secure their personal data and keep their browsing and purchasing activities private. When people don’t have privacy, they can’t feel safe. When they don’t feel safe, they can’t live freely. That’s not a world anyone, let alone Americans, want to live in.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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