In Pursuit of Silence: how noise really is killing us

| September 6, 2010
By Thomas Rogers

For most Americans, silence is hard to find these days.


Traffic and airplane noise fill most major cities. Cellphone conversations have taken over the parks and sidewalks, buzzing electronics have invaded our homes, and each store has its own carefully shaped ‘sonic environment’. Most of us accept these noises as a normal byproduct of our gadgetobsessed times, but in his new book, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, George Prochnik argues that this barrage of noise is more than just a nuisance; it poses a real threat to our cardiovascular system and mental health, our ability to concentrate and, perhaps most dangerous of all, it turns our political discourse into a shrill barrage.

I spoke to Prochnik about the younger generation’s passion for noise, the torture of mall music, and why Americans are so much louder than the rest of the world.

You live in New York. Do you think life in this city is getting louder?

In many cities in the 19th century, in particular during the Industrial Revolution, life would have been louder than what we currently experience in New York City, for example. But I think the noise we suffer from today is more incessant. We have a different set of issues – night-time noise and air traffic are some of the most obvious culprits – but in the 19th century, even working-class people often lived in situations where it was easier to find a space where the sound of civilisation was mixed with some kinds of natural sounds.

Is noise really hurting us? Aren’t we just used to it?

Consider that people in jail live in huge dorm-style prisons where there is hardly ever a break from electronic buzzing or loudspeaker announcements or artificial light. It’s part of the punitive experience. Noise wreaks havoc on all different parts of our bodies. The heart rate accelerates. We get vasoconstriction. Even if we’re not disturbed by noise, sleep is fragmented. It’s been shown that the elevated blood pressure caused by night-time noise continues all through the day. Loss of sleep is tied to all kinds of immune and heart problems, and a real laundry list of ailments. Even if we do habituate mentally to noise, that doesn’t change what’s happening to our bodies.

In this culture, the idea of noise sensitivity is associated with weakness or preciousness or a kind of fuddy-duddy crankiness. Culturally and for commercial reasons, noise is viewed as a part of our pursuit of happiness – our drive to have fun.

I think that ties into the American emphasis on individualism – like it’s a right to play our music as loudly as possible. Americans also tend to be louder, in general, than most people from other countries.

When it comes to tourists, there are the invariable clichés about the loud American. We just do speak more loudly in public places. We do really have this profound sense of the right to our happiness. It’s interesting to note that the authors of the Constitution had the street outside Independence Hall covered with earth, so their deliberations wouldn’t be disturbed by traffic noise. Think about that as a contrast to the noise that comes out of Capitol Hill these days.

If you think about the debate over healthcare, for example, political discourse in American does seem to be getting a lot louder.

It’s repugnant and it’s an indication of the breakdown of the ideals of dialogue that democracy depends upon to function. When you can simply say your point is the most important because it’s the loudest, it’s a kind of totalitarianism of noise.

Speaking of totalitarianism, you write about the peculiar impact of Hitler’s voice in the book. Was there really something unique about it that predisposed people to follow him?

The filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl described the effect of his voice as conjuring an apocalyptic vision. He managed to change pitch in a very intentional concentrated way. He would rise, go deep down and get very raspy. At Kenyon College, scientists are looking at the ways that changes in harmony intervals may hit us at a particular vulnerable point in the auditory cortex. Hitler’s voice may have intentionally gone against its natural resonance to produce emotional effects in its audience.

You spent time in a Texas shopping mall with a woman who creates sound environments for shoppers. Why are stores so loud these days?

All sorts of studies looked at what music speed and volume do to the time people spend in stores, and weirdly, most of the studies find you can turn it up almost indefinitely without turning people away. The noise acts as a magnet. Starbucks was one of the first chains to set out to be sonically consistent. In a Starbucks store, you are put into a cone of brand identity, with certain sets of associations they’ve focus-grouped a million times, to create a sense of rebellion, melancholy, or whatever. We are being very comprehensively manipulated.

Do you think that the younger generation is just less accustomed to silence?

I think the current environment is oversaturated with stimulation in a way that’s quite recent. A lot of homes have computer games and the TV on simultaneously. There’s less and less of an experience of silence. I spoke to young people from one fairly troubled area in New York, and it transpired that they didn’t know what silence was like. It seems callous of antinoise activists to tell these people to be quiet when they’ve had no positive experience of silence. We have to make a much more concerted effort as a society to not just position silence as this necessary inward journey, but to make quiet spaces democratically accessible in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

I ride the subway to work every day, and I often turn up the music on my iPod just to drown out the noise from the subway. I find it exasperating. It’s like
I’m forced to choose between two different kinds of noise.

There’s a reason people are turning their iPod volume too high. We are so loud partly because we have to create our own personal noise so that we don’t feel like we’re being held hostage to the grind and clash of the environment.

These days it’s also so easy to fill in any silence. You just click a button on your iPod, or on YouTube, and you’ve got music or noise.

I asked my eldest at one point what he thought about his generation relative to mine. He said: “We’re the most distracted generation in history.” We all seem to have attention deficit of some degree. The youth have become so accustomed to noise that it’s an addiction – it’s a 45- second hit of distraction. We’re continually blinded by sonic and visual surprises, and the implications for deliberative thought are scary.

Realistically, though, is there anything we can actually do about this noise?

In London, Sweden and Denmark, urban planners are peeling back some of the layers of noise that have accrued and exposing people again to sounds like
church bells or wind rustling. In your own home, you can plant specific kinds of foliage that are soundabsorbing. Also, when people look at soothing images of nature, their sense of auditory noise goes down by a number of decibels. You can also just keep as quiet as possible.

This article is reprinted here with the kind permission of Salon.com

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