Sometimes I feel like I’m spinning around in the middle of an extremely NOISY world with my hands over my ears, screaming for some quiet. In the real world that I share with others, I’m more likely to politely request that the noisemakers reduce their volume, although I have been known to let loose with unladylike yelling, which may startle those around me into momentary silence. However, it has not proven to have long-lasting effects and sets a very bad example for others while leaving me feeling foolish and out of control without nearly the cathartic relief one might hope for.
I wrote a previous column about our need to preserve the dark skies and this week I’d like to address the need for another type of preservation, that of quiet spaces, in our public and private places as well as in the sanctity of our minds.
The noise of the inner city was one of the major reasons I could no longer live in Minneapolis: the cacophony of inconsiderate humans, people shouting, boom boxes blasting and huge sound systems installed in car trunks, converting modes of transportation to blaring, pulsing noise machines, clamoring for attention, disgorging amplified bass beats belching throughout the neighborhood, making all the windows in my duplex rattle.
In contrast, I’m sitting outside on a beautiful, gently-warm evening, bathed in the pink light of the setting sun, the scent of lilacs and the harmonious, backyard bird choir. I can hear a bit of distant traffic and occasionally a car passes by, but there’s no honking, no loud radios, no neighbors fighting, and I feel blessed to be here. So I raise the question: Why do people seem to want or need to surround themselves with noise?
When I enter a restaurant and a blast of loud music greets me, if I don’t turn around and leave, my first question will often be, “Would it be possible to turn the music down or off?” Wait staff are usually politely accommodating, but that begs the question of why they would think it’s appropriate in the first place to have loud, lively music, often with vocals, as a backdrop for people wishing to dine and enjoy each others’ company. Now, I do get it that lively music is fun for the employees, making boring or difficult jobs easier, but, for me, competing with loud background music is irritating, making it hard to hear or even to think…and it wears me out. When I go out to eat alone, I like to read or write, so too-loud or overly energetic music is still annoying and distracting.
Then there are the TV screens, everywhere you look, long rows of them in retail stores, all turned on, attempting to blast you into insensibility so you’ll buy the latest, greatest and biggest, just in case you don’t yet have a screen covering your entire wall. I’ve even seen them on gas pumps! Even without sound, the images on a television screen are a distraction, visually grabbing at your attention. Sometimes it feels like walking through a minefield, trying to find a table in a restaurant that is not directly under a blaring speaker, facing a television screen or too close to a table full of loud children or cell phone users.
The nervous system is no doubt one of the most complex systems of the human body. It is a network of cells by which electrochemical messages are relayed back and forth between the brain and various parts of the body. “Noise—random disturbances of signals—poses a fundamental problem for information processing and affects all aspects of nervous-system function.” (As reported in an article in Nature Reivews Neuroscience.) So, noise, as well as other excessive stimulation, affects all our senses and our ability to think and process information. And as we all know, being exposed to excessive noise decibels repeatedly or in shorter, intense intervals will damage hearing, and it seems that most the people I meet have some level of hearing loss, regardless of age.
What is going on? Although I know I may be like the canary in the coal mine with a fairly sensitive nervous system and excellent hearing on top of it, I also know that the barrage of constant stimulation has an affect on everyone’s nervous system, so I look around me and ask, “Why don’t they seem to be disturbed by this?”
Maybe they have better strategies for tuning out; maybe they’re chronically numbed out. Is that really a good idea? Cranking up the volume, so we won’t have to listen or think about much of anything? Won’t be able to, for that matter?
For the sake of our nervous systems, for our physical and mental health, so a sense of well-being, we need to have some quiet, somewhere to leave behind the noisy chatter of the world. I do know that some people keep the noisy input on intentionally with a radio, TV or music going continuously because they don’t know what to do when it’s quiet. Some people have told me it makes them nervous. Some have said then they start thinking about their life and they don’t want to think too much. With the ubiquitous cell phones constantly ringing and instantly answered and the headphones piping in music, it is quite possible to avoid yourself for a long time. I am so tired of being forced to hear people’s phone conversations wherever I go, more chatter, more noise. Last week there was a man pacing back and forth in front of a restaurant talking to someone so loudly that he could be heard a block away. I was sorely tempted to cross over and say, “Excuse me, sir. Just thought you’d want to know that we have certain standards in Ely. I’ve been listening from across the street and it just is not nearly interesting enough to share with all of us. Please quiet down or hang up. Enjoy your visit!”
There is a strange conception that if a place is noisy, then people must be having a good time…it’s a “happening place” to use outdated slang. What are we trying to fill up, cover up or avoid with too much noise, food, alcohol, or busyness? I suspect there is an existential angst lurking in our beings, wanting answers to the questions posed throughout human history: “Who am I? What am I doing here? What is my purpose?” Our awareness that we will eventually die is what separates us from the animals – that, and our ability to accessorize, as Dolly Parton’s character informed us in Steel Magnolias. So, we’re blessed with this self-awareness, and if it’s just a bit too much for us some of the time, let’s just be a bit more considerate of our nervous systems and each other.