Do you feel inundated with clamor? Bothered by loud, obtrusive ruckus? Unnerved by the incessant racket of your neighborhood, your city, humanity and all its instruments in general? (Yes, I’m surprised there’s no pill for it yet.) Blame the blaring contraptions our species has come up with. Blame the obliviousness (or grating intentionality) of some people who impose their noise on everyone else, especially at the most ridiculous times of day: contractors’ jackhammers going at 6:00 a.m., the snowblower grinding next door at midnight, the leaf blower at any time of day (in my humble opinion), muffler-deficient cars (with thumping bass) at all hours. Then there’s the incessant traffic, the planes, the trains, not to mention the neighbor’s yippie dog that won’t ever shut up. Is it any wonder the word noise comes from nausea? If you’re one of the ones who can’t seem to get far enough away from all the din, rest assured that 1) you’re in good company (Do I see hands?) and 2) your efforts are all in the name of good health – both mental and physical.
Some of us are naturally less sensitive to noise than others. Maybe we grew up in a noisy, busy household and built a tolerance to it. Maybe it’s just our personalities to feel energized by hustle and bustle. Alternatively, others of us go to every length to avoid it like the plague. We have noise canceling earphones or an array of fountains, nature CDs, or white noise machines to block out whatever clamor we can. (I survived the cacophony of college with a 14-inch window fan running day and night.) We make time alone just for the silence of it. When it comes to noise, type and time matter as well. The low hum of a favorite coffee shop might not even register, but on certain days the sound of the neighbor’s whistling can bring us to the end of patience.
A friend of mine recently turned me on to a book called In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise  by George Prochnik. Prochnik’s a self-proclaimed noise-a-phobe who sets out to probe both the culture of noise and science behind silence. His quest takes him everywhere from urban streets to university labs to a Quaker meeting to Trappist retreats. The stakes are high, experts tell him: one-third of us, Prochnik learns, demonstrate measurable hearing loss.
And it’s not just our ears that feel the toll. Noise, experts explain, causes stress that can result in serious health risk. A New York Times article  last week reported ominous findings of a study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. Noise, and the stress and sleep disruption it imposes, appears to be responsible for 1.8% of heart attacks in Western Europe and 2.7% in more densely populated Germany. As difficult as it is to assign causation in these types of studies, here’s what we know. Reviews of existing studies examining occupational noise show a clear link to hypertension, as does air traffic noise for blood pressure increase (even while subjects were sleeping !), for both adults and children . Furthermore, noise has also been shown to increase catecholamines, the “fight or flight” hormones. We all know what comes of the chronic stress hormone cascade…. Although the research  linking noise exposure to heightened heart attack and stroke risk has been mixed, it’s not much of a jump to accept that chronic noise exposure contributes to compromised cardiac and overall health.
Noise, experts have found, takes an additional toll on our mental health and cognitive functioning. Exposure to air traffic noise, one of the most studied of areas, appears to increase the incidence of physician visits  for psychologically based symptoms and the intake of related medication . Research subjects exposed to noise tend to perform more poorly on “complex tasks.” Children fare worse still with impaired reading comprehension and long-term memory . When it comes to run-of-the-mill household noise, children raised in louder, more chaotic homes demonstrate more difficulty in language acquisition and delay in cognitive development. They also show more anxiety.
Interestingly, nature sounds show a contrary, therapeutic influence. Research from Johns Hopkins demonstrates  that nature sounds (in addition to natural scenes) substantially reduce patients’ experience of pain during bone marrow extraction (one of the more excruciating medical procedures even with the local anesthetic typically offered). Although “a physician’s skill in pain management” influenced the success of the nature-focused “distraction” techniques, even with the most skilled practitioners, significant differences were reported between patients who had the procedure with the nature enhancements and the control group in a normal procedure room (3.9 versus 5.7 on the pain scale). A previous study had shown up to a “five-fold” pain reduction during bronchoscopy procedures.
Research supports the positive effects of nature sound not just for acute illness and pain management but also for everyday stress recovery. Bird sounds , even more than water fountains , reduce people’s perception of urban noise.
However distorted the noise of contemporary culture, we’re clearly intended to be an auditorily oriented species. As Prochnik discovers in his interviews with audiologists, physicians, and other experts, hearing is one of our most complex and fundamental senses. He calls it “the sensory factor determining sustainability.” In other words, our ability to hear predators and interpret the auditory cues of our environment was perhaps the most crucial for survival. It’s not the auditory experience that’s skewed, it’s the content we’re taking in. To some experts, we’re actually auditorily deficient these days. Paul Shepard, in Coming Home to the Pleistocene , cites work by anthropologist Walter Ong that contrasts the more natural “‘acoustical event world’” of the wild with the “modern ‘hypervisual culture’” of today. We’re inundated with noise, but we’re starved for the sounds our brains evolved to perceive and process. As Prochnik explains, it’s like we stuff ourselves with junk food noise but still hunger for the sound that truly nourishes us. Our “aural diet,” he says, matters more than we understand.
One researcher has devoted his work to changing that. Bryan Pijanowski, Associate Professor of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue University, recently published a paper that lays out a framework for a crucial new field called “soundscape ecology .” The sounds of biological (biophony) and non-biological, natural sources (geophony), he suggests, can help counter typical urban noise, but they can do something much more fundamentally significant (Primal, if you will). The recovery of natural sound – the original soundtrack of our evolutionary roots – can help reconnect us with our natural world – and the nature-based aural experiences which inspire both peace and order on a neurological level.
That’s music to the Primal ears, I’d say.
Thanks for reading today. Let me know what you think and how noise/natural sound play out in your everyday life and well-being. Have a great day, everyone!