Here’s a worthy challenge: Try escaping the daily din of American life. It’s not easy. Maybe, for instance, you don’t actually want to hear Wolf Blitzer’s voice blaring from every TV planted in a public space. Who’d blame you?
Unfortunately, most of us are constantly assaulted by a never-ending bleating, clanging, whirring, and buzzing — the raucous background music of 21st-century civilization.
It’s more than merely annoying, which would be plenty bad enough. It also undermines our ability to work productively. Worse, it may be doing harm to our brains.
While the cacophony is not an entirely new phenomenon — except for the chirps of our omnipresent tech devices — it nevertheless constitutes a palpable torture for many of us. You know that androgynous figure who expresses universally understood “agony” in Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream? Well, then you get the idea.
The most troubling part of noise pollution is that it can result in permanent hearing loss, anxiety, and hypertension. Some say even coronary artery disease. Such trauma! At the very least, don’t we all badly need some alone time, where we can focus? An obviously good idea, I’d say. It is hardly a surprise, then, that so many of our fellow Americans seek refuge in the isolation of parks and forests.
Noise is, of course, a serious problem chiefly in urban areas. It was in New York City, unsurprisingly, where she could no longer abide the background roar, that Julia Barnett Rice, wife of a wealthy businessman, founded the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise. That was 113 years ago. Mark Twain signed on as spokesperson for the group. Its one lasting legacy: the widespread adoption of legally enforced quiet zones around schools and hospitals.
Mice, when exposed to two hours of silence every day, developed new cells in the region of the brain that controls memory, emotion, and learning.
But even far from our cities, anti-noise battles rage. Those who lead the charge — arguing for better noise-abatement legislation and comity among oft-disrespectful neighbors — do so with increasing evidence to support the cause.
These days, they can bring to their campaigns evidence showing that quiet is provably beneficial. Six years ago, the journal Brain Structure and Function published a study indicating that mice, when exposed to two hours of silence every day, developed new cells in the region of the brain that controls memory, emotion, and learning. Not exactly a duh! moment in the annals of laboratory experimentation, but a revelation nevertheless.
Additionally, recent studies — with humans — offer yet more support for those of us who believe that quiet is among our basic human rights — the right to maintain our personal well-being. People who meditate, this research has found, often see a significant delay in the onset of brain deterioration. In essence, by carving out a quiet interlude every day, meditators remain intellectually youthful longer.
These discoveries free those of us who long for a quieter country to confront our neighbors about such matters as dogs that just will not stop barking. Or, more urgently, streaming rappers who just will not stop rapping. At the very least, in our cranky way, we can present Actual Science to explain why the noise sets us off. All we want, after all, are fresh brain cells.
And then there is the enduring mystery of what’s known as the Hum, an anomalous, barely detectable noise heard almost everywhere around the world. Does it come from electromagnetic signals? Underground pipelines? No one knows. But scientists keep looking into the Hum. However bad it is, in my opinion it’s not nearly as maddening as many amateur YouTube videos. So, for now, I choose to sit — in quiet, when possible — and blissfully ignore its existence.
In the last issue, Cable Neuhaus wrote about luxury sneakers.
This article is featured in the November/December 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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