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Last February, in the middle of a raging snowstorm, I stepped outside among the fat, swirling snowflakes and heard…nothing. No cars, no voices, no barking dogs. The snow that blanketed everything had muted even the tiniest sounds.
A few hours later, this silent world had melted into the spray of tires rushing down a slushy road, the scrape of shovels, and the grumbling of overeager snowplows. Real silence is just that fleeting. Most of us don't even realize what we're missing amid the daily acoustic garbage that litters the air: traffic rumbling by, descending planes roaring overhead, the hum of appliances in the next room. You get used to it.
Or do you? While your conscious mind might tune out background noise, your body is still very much aware of it. The latest research shows that environmental noise is a pretty serious health threat and has linked it not just to the obvious issues like sleep disturbances and annoyance, but also to stomach problems, impaired immunity, and even heart disease. A 2011 World Health Organization (WHO) report actually quantified the consequences of noise on the urban population of Western Europe. It found that "at least 1 million healthy life years are lost every year from traffic-related noise" (say, from health problems brought on by sleep disturbances). And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, street noise ranks as the number one neighborhood complaint—higher even than crime.
Any other health problem of this magnitude would have a government task force searching for solutions. But you probably don't consider a moment of silence on par with your daily workout or a healthy diet in terms of what it can do for your physical and mental well-being. Researchers and experts disagree: Those increasingly rare moments of quiet have myriad benefits to our bodies and psyches, they say. Here's how you can begin reclaiming them and reaping the benefits.
Living Out Loud
"This past decade was the noisiest in the history of the world," says Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a nonprofit in Montpelier, Vermont, dedicated to creating quieter communities. Vehicles (one of the biggest noise makers) traveled almost twice as many miles in 2009 as they did in 1980. And the number of cargo planes taking to the air (another biggie) increased significantly in the past 15 years as well. In fact, ever since industrialization, technology has added to the din: Cars now honk to signal they've been locked, public transportation clanks and clatters, even constant cell-phone chatter raises the volume.
All this unchecked racket is a huge stress on your mind and body. Blomberg likens making noise to "reaching into someone's head and shaking the inner workings of their ear." And, like other stressors, noise can trigger the fight-or-flight response, a combination of nerve and hormonal signals intended to prep you for action. In response, your body pumps out adrenaline and cortisol, and increases heart rate and blood pressure.
The problem, says Rokho Kim, M.D., D.P.H., the WHO scientist who spearheaded the 2011 report, is that when we're constantly under siege from noise (and these effects have been noted even in subjects who are asleep, he says), our bodies don't get the downtime they need to recover and are flooded with autonomic nervous and hormonal responses, including increased levels of cortisol, a marker of chronic stress. Over time, this perpetual state of readiness takes a toll. Stress hormones can weaken the immune system, and chronically high blood pressure can ultimately lead to heart disease.
Your brain suffers as well. Research conducted in an office setting found that even a less-than-extreme level of background noise—doors being opened and closed, copy machines, and the conversations of coworkers—reduced worker productivity, increased fatigue, and made it harder to concentrate on tasks.
As the volume of the noise and the length of time you hear it increase, so does your risk. Loud noise (above about 55 decibels or dBA—for reference, the hum of a refrigerator is around 40 dBA; heavy city traffic, 85 dBA) is more stressful than soft, and uncontrollable, intermittent bursts of unexpected noise are worse than when it's steady. And the less control you have over the sounds, the more stress you feel and the worse the reaction.
Hit the Mute Button
Given these problems, why do we tolerate a startling amount of noise in our lives?
For one thing, society doesn't exactly sanction silence. "As a culture, we've come to associate noise with technological progress," says Blomberg. As roaring jet planes and beeping computers became symbols of great American ideals like hard work and innovation, quiet has been relegated to a lazy luxury, a break between activity and not a worthy goal in itself. We don't trust what we can't hear, which may explain why some manufacturers of hybrid cars have begun adding sound to their quietly humming machines (no lie). "We have this false assumption that the world has to be noisy," says Blomberg.
On a more individual level, it can seem practical to want to smother less pleasant noises (lawn mowers, rowdy neighbors) with your preferred ones (Modern Family, Adele). But George Prochnik, author of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, points out, "People are often paradoxically using more noise as a kind of soundproofing." Why not just seek out silence? Prochnik researched his book by spending time in some of the quietest places on earth, including sensory deprivation tanks, and he points to a lesson he learned from Trappist monks: "When we don't have external stimulation, it forces us to look back into ourselves." And let's face it: That may be just fine for monks, but for many of us, the thought of that much time alone with our thoughts can be downright scary. We'd rather drown them out.
Still, we could learn a thing or two from the monastic life, and while a vow of silence may not be practical, mini escapes from the chaos are totally doable. Alex Doman, coauthor of Healing at the Speed of Sound, recommends taking two five-to 10-minute "quiet breaks" a day: Close your office door, walk to an isolated park bench, or even sit in a bathroom stall while wearing noise-canceling headphones (not ones that are playing music, even if it is Brahms' lullaby). This will give your body a rest from noise-induced stress responses and help fend off disease down the road. It also allows your brain time to process all the stimuli it has encountered.
Researchers have also discovered a certain technique that may help buffer you against the harmful effects of constant clamor, a kind of vaccine for the stress of noise you can't avoid. Called mindfulness meditation (MM), it's incredibly simple: You sit still and breathe normally but take your body off autopilot and really focus as you inhale and exhale, bringing your mind back to your breath whenever it wanders.
"Normally, our mind is like an untrained puppy. It kind of goes wherever," says Catherine Kerr, Ph.D., of Brown University, who led a 2011 study on MM. "What you learn by using mindfulness meditation is to let go of whatever distracting thought or sound has grabbed hold of you and return your attention to your breath. With a few minutes a day of that kind of practice, you should potentially be able to use that skill in a noisy environment," she says, and more easily let go of an annoying sound's hold on your attention. Kerr's subjects were actually able to use the technique to control certain brain waves, which allowed them to tune out distractions more easily at a later time, when they weren't actively practicing MM.
Maybe even more important than seeking to escape the noise in your life, however, is "intentionally cultivating a more varied experience of sound," says Prochnik. Instead of subjecting yourself to the nonstop cacophony of modern life, sit under a tree and listen to the birds sing. Try to alternate sound and silence.
"I think it's the balance we're missing right now. It's the constant envelopment in a din of sound that's so dangerous," he says. "Silence isn't about an absence of listening, it's about hearing much more—and discerning many small sounds."
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