Natalie Haynes: A bark isn't actually worse than a bite

The thing is...

Researchers at King's College London have announced the invention of a device which could save the teeth of a nation. They have created a chip which will block out the sound of the dentist's drill. The gadget can be plugged into your MP3 player while you sit in the dentist's chair, and will leave you unable to hear the drill, but perfectly able to hear the words of the dentist, as she explains that this might hurt a bit.

In other words, you won't be completely isolated from any sounds, which would be terrifying. But you will lose the high-pitched whining sound (unless your dentist has that kind of voice, in which case you're on your own).

The research team have noted that many people don't go to the dentist because of anxiety about the sound of the drill, and claim: "This device has the potential to make fear of the drill a thing of the past." Which it does, but only once they've invented another add-on device, which makes all the pain and the drilling go away entirely.

Because here's the thing: most people aren't scared of the sound of the drill because it is a horrible noise (although it is). They're scared of the sound of the drill because at least nine times out of 10, it heralds the arrival of the actual drill. And that is something they quite reasonably associate with someone drilling into their teeth, which is the thing they're actually afraid of.

It's pretty much the same as people who are afraid of dogs: they're afraid of barking too, but only because there's usually a dog attached to it. And even if the dog doesn't bark, they're still going to be afraid of it.

Drill-phobics aren't going to suddenly lose their fear of pain if the noise that accompanies it disappears.Although if you have music playing as the dentist drills, I suppose you might gain a whole new fear of tunes you previously liked: I would have thought that listening to a song while someone gives you a root canal was pretty much guaranteed to make you never listen to that song again, and start whimpering if you heard it playing in a shop, or a bar, or when a close friend walked down the aisle.

The advantage of the drilling sound is that you only hear it at the dentist. So you don't start weeping uncontrollably anywhere else.