The very real threat of noise pollution
Why we must navigate a sea of racket to find pleasure in the sound of silence — and happiness in music.
It’s a jungle out there. Sensory overload mesmerizes the masses, and everyone can be impaired by it: Invasive visuals, phony smells, guilty tastes, fake feelings and, above it all, noise pollution and even “noise porn.”
Often, people wake to the sounds of static, jarring alarms, and radio babble — the dawning daily stress that beats our brains and bodies. Even being around certain loud people can be stressful. This is noise pollution. Many others purposely subject themselves to unpleasant sounds, from television and videos to bad or very loud music. This is noise porn.
Humans are naturally very sensitive, like all animals. We are particularly hard-wired for sound and music long before birth. It’s not just a survival mechanism to help escape danger, it also ensures the sweet awareness of life’s many pleasures; at least potentially.
We sense sound two different ways. Our ears catch the sound waves, and bones conduct them. In both cases, sensory signals are sent for interpretation to the brain, where, generally, they are construed as good or evil, pleasure or pain. Or, in short, whether these sounds may help or hurt us. A happy sound is literally healthy, therapeutic. However, an annoying one can jolt our nervous system, triggering too many stress hormones. The result can be reduced brain function, including creativity, while literally wrecking the body.
Unfortunately, we live in a sea of noise pollution, flooding our bodies with stress. Sensory overload is a bad brain toxin that causes injury. Truly a bad trip to avoid.
Much of the danger comes from corporate marketing babble — propaganda — from TV, radio, Internet, and other sources. These are generally easy to turn off. Just as bad are the many mechanical devices, from refrigerators to vehicles, that produce annoying racket. Other sources of noise include barking dogs and loud humans — a bit more challenging but still something that can be addressed.
When was the last time you experienced real peace and quiet, sensing only the subtle sounds of your body?
End-result health problems associated with noise are real, dangerous, and serious. They include hypertension, cardiovascular disease, sleep disorders, hearing loss, and others. Triggered via the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis, the immediate excess stress can impair us in untold ways that may be seemingly benign.
In addition to stress, another result of noise is that it drowns out the brain’s ability to hear happy sounds — such as the lovely lyrics of a love song, the intricate instrumental parts of a symphony, the sophisticated notes of a beautiful solo. A quiet walk in the woods reveals many natural sounds, too. Unfortunately, for too many people, the impaired brain can misinterpret pleasant sounds as garble, or even confusion, producing pain.
Our fast-paced society puts aside the arts because we are told we’re too busy for pleasure — so quick-fixes and other illusions are offered — sounds that are not the real thing. It’s just more noise. We’ve been unwittingly trained to shun the sound of silence, turning on a radio or talking incessantly to break some uncomfortable soundless barrier.
Some people believe they get used to all the noise, but it still can adversely affect the brain. Meanwhile others inwardly, or sometimes outwardly, shriek at the same painful annoyances. But there’s nowhere to run as noise seeps into our heads virtually everywhere we go.
Can we travel on the quiet side of the street? Only if we choose to do so.
We can manipulate our environment to hear more pleasure and less pain. I’m not talking about the equivalent of using a toxic air ‘freshener’ to cover up bad smells but removing the cause whenever possible.
Just like we choose healthy food or physical activity — or not — we have the power to control much of our environment to seek out pleasant sounds. By eliminating even some of the unhealthy sounds, we reduce the stress on our brain.
Here are some things to do and undo; once you get started, you’ll be more able to further individualize your unique situation.
What to avoid
Electrical sounds abound in the home. Don’t think so? Turn off your main power in your home for a few moments — the difference is often astounding. Many devices that make noise don’t need to be plugged in all the time (and most draw electricity even when not being used).
Some noisemakers can be moved to safer locations or used when you’re not around. Move your refrigerator to a mud room or other area, use dish- and clothes-washers at night, avoid TV and radio commercials, reduce frequency of lawn care.
Loud or fast-paced music can be exhilarating, but be aware of how, and how much, you are using it. You might be using noise porn like a “drug.” Keep this is check.
What to add
So-called white noise devices may not be as helpful as simple earplugs, which are great when you can’t reduce or eliminate noise such as when inside a vehicle, train, airplane, or on a busy city street. Noise cancellation headphones and playing music through earbuds can help reduce stress whatever your location. However, avoid music listening through cheap speakers on a computer or phone. Good car speakers are OK but adding earplugs and adjusting the volume works well too.
Also, seek out silence. One of my favorite ultimate quiet memories was atop a 14,000-foot Colorado mountain — I felt the vibrations of each heartbeat and could hear the passing clouds.