•We provide the first evidence of a special acoustic regime (“roughness”) for screams
•Roughness is used in both natural and artificial alarm signals
•Roughness confers a behavioral advantage to react rapidly and efficiently
•Acoustic roughness selectively activates amygdala, involved in danger processingSummary
Screaming is arguably one of the most relevant communication signals for survival in humans. Despite their practical relevance and their theoretical significance as innate and virtually universal vocalizations, what makes screams a unique signal and how they are processed is not known. Here, we use acoustic analyses, psychophysical experiments, and neuroimaging to isolate those features that confer to screams their alarming nature, and we track their processing in the human brain. Using the modulation power spectrum, a recently developed, neurally informed characterization of sounds, we demonstrate that human screams cluster within restricted portion of the acoustic space (between ∼30 and 150 Hz modulation rates) that corresponds to a well-known perceptual attribute, roughness. In contrast to the received view that roughness is irrelevant for communication, our data reveal that the acoustic space occupied by the rough vocal regime is segregated from other signals, including speech, a pre-requisite to avoid false alarms in normal vocal communication. We show that roughness is present in natural alarm signals as well as in artificial alarms and that the presence of roughness in sounds boosts their detection in various tasks. Using fMRI, we show that acoustic roughness engages subcortical structures critical to rapidly appraise danger. Altogether, these data demonstrate that screams occupy a privileged acoustic niche that, being separated from other communication signals, ensures their biological and ultimately social efficiency.