As my husband and I plan to meet friends at a Seattle restaurant for dinner tonight, I predict that much of our conversation will be lost. Not because we won’t be talking, but because we won’t be hearing. Sure, our aging ears and all those rock concerts from our past, the ones that raged well beyond a 100 decibel, contribute to the problem. But so does the design of the restaurants themselves: high ceilings, hard surfaces, tables jammed close together, and pounding background music. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t build them this way if people didn’t swarm to them.
So what’s wrong with noise? According to a 2011 World Health Organization report, “there is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population.”
Alana Semuels writes in The Atlantic magazine (March 2016) that in the U.S., “Between the sounds of car horns, sirens, truck traffic, and people yelling, background-noise levels can regularly reach 70 decibels…That much noise pollution isn’t just annoying; it can heighten stress, disrupt your sleep, and even lead to heart disease.”
For a moment, let’s switch from talking about the problems of noise, to the benefits of silence. Dailygood.com published an article this month by Carolyn Gregoire called, “Why Silence is So Good For Your Brain.” Here’s what she reports:
*Two minutes of silence is better for your blood pressure and circulation than listening to relaxing music.
*Less sensory input helps revive a fatigued brain.
*In silence, we become more reflective, more empathetic, and more creative.
*”Getting quiet can regenerate brain cells.”
The last time I experienced near total silence was the five nights in December we spent in sleepy, snow-covered central Washington. Sounds from crows and the occasional airplane engine were the only ones that broke the peace. Our cross-country skis made little noise and we met few people on the trails. It was truly a stress-free experience.
The Atlantic article offered hope for a quieter future. Electric cars, new technology to calm leaf blowers and jack hammers (yes, quieter electric jack hammers now exist), and self-driving cars that won’t drive impatiently while keeping a hand on the horn, all point to less noise. If only… But the author reminds us that despite the potential for reducing road noise and other ubiquitous sounds in our daily lives, soon we may experience the whirring of drones overhead as they deliver our on-line orders.
Right now, we’re best off finding our own quiet places to recharge our brains and bodies. I plan to stick with my pre-sunrise ritual: one cup of tea, one large cat purring below 70 decibels, a newspaper or a book, and no one moving in the house or the neighborhood.