In Pursuit of Silence

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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 u201Cfight or flightu201D 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.

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