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A few notes about noise, sound, quiet, silence & health

January 30, 2014

Credit: Margaret Boyles
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Shortly after returning a long showshoe hike in the woods near my house a few days ago, an online news headline caught my attention: Noise is No. 1 quality-of-life complaint in NYC.

The caption under a photo accompanying the article read, “In 2013, the city’s 311 hotline got more than 260,000 calls about excessive noise, up 30 percent in two years.”

I flashed back 20 years or so to a public hearing in my small town over a proposal to install a small sawmill on a road about half a mile from any house or business. More than 40 people turned out, most of whom raised their voices angrily against the sawmill. 

They equated the noise potential of the sawmill with the awful disturbance the previous year caused by a large-scale forestry operation that ran day and night, subjecting residents a mile away to the trucks, saws, chippers, and the endless bleating of back-up beepers.

Industrial machines, heavy traffic, construction noise, shrieking trains, honking horns, jets and helicopters overhead, barking dogs, and hollering humans, gets people anxious, angry...and sick.

Most people know that high-decibel noise can damage hearing. But chronic exposure to noise has a wide variety of negative health effects that go way beyond annoyance, including cardiovascular problems, immune-system disruptions, sleep disturbance, interference with fetal and child development, and more.

It turns out the study of “soundscapes” and their relationship to human health and wellbeing is broad and breathtakingly complex. Studies of the relationships between humans (and wildlife) and the sound environments they live in have resulted in calls for preserving native, natural “sound environments” as common resources like soils, air, and water. 

George Foy, a journalist and New York University creative writing professor, also found the New York City soundscape a hellscape, and set out to find “the last place on Earth without human noise.” He visited an anechoic chamber, a room built specifically for the purpose of excluding all noise, at Orfield Labs in Minnesota. 

  • …[M]inutes into his stay in the chamber, he noticed that the silence was in fact broken. His own body, it turned out – his breathing, his heartbeat, even the scratchy sound his scalp made rubbing against his skull when he frowned – was betraying his quest for auditory nothingness.

    “The only time you’ll hear absolute silence is when you’re in no position to hear it, because you’re dead,” he realized.

An article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health notes, “the term ‘quiet’ is not synonymous with silence; its standard usage implies an absence or masking of industrial noise, and/or the presence of natural sounds such as water flow, birdsong, or wind.”

There’s quite a bit of research on the healing effects of nature, although few studies that specifically tease out the visuual from the sound or olfactory effects which includes the stress-relieving effects of natural sounds, even in virtual environments.

Most of us would define noise as intrusive, unwanted sound of any kind. I feel grateful my semi-rural environment rarely presents annoying noise I can’t control. (One roaring exception: motorcyle week, when thousands of bikers from across the nation come blasting through central New Hampshire, day and night all week.)

Somehow I don’t find troubling the more usual sounds of chainsaws, snowplows, and lawn mowers in my sparsely populated corner of the universe. They connect me to my community in comforting ways. Even the sawmilll (which received its permit despite the protests) and a gravel-mining operation half a mile down the roadboth separated from me by generous stretches of woodsenter my soundscape with only the occasional muffled sounds of operation.

Last spring, the New York Times asked its readers: "Where do you go to find peace in this boisterous city? With eight million New Yorkers and 50 million tourists a year all packed into 301 square miles, is there a special park bench, riverside fishing spot or underused historic site where you go to cherish the sound of silence?"

More than 1,000 readers responded, telling the paper they find quiet space in parks, on piers and riverbanks, in places of worship, museums, parks, public gardens, cemeteries, and wildlife sanctuaries. The paper created this beautiful slideshow from readers’ suggestions.

Replete with soundscapes, this lovely photomontage brings a sense of peace and calm just by viewing it.

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Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

Comments

Oh, I feel your pain! Isn't

By KJS

Oh, I feel your pain! Isn't it sad that when you politely ask a neighbor to tone it down, they purposely make MORE noise just to tick you off?? How did this country become so uncivilized? Too many people living too closely together and too much stress overall have created so many problems! I hope you can find another place to live (if that is an option for you) or pray the family above you will be evicted if they are causing THAT much noise. Can your landlord do anything about the noise? (Then you may have to deal with more retaliation!) Good luck to you in dealing with your noise issue and inconsiderate neighbors.

As it turned out our former

By K. J. Spurgeon

As it turned out our former neighbor's boy has ADHD and even failed the first grade (how do you fail the first grade??). Not sure about their daughter, but they both fought a lot as siblings do. The parents were in denial at first, I think. Most kids are loud IF they are allowed to get away with being loud. I really notice this in restaurants especially. Yet I know families who have beautifully-behaved children who are NOT noisy or disruptive. It's all how they are raised from the start. The case I speak of is quite sad actually. Nice family, but a bit misguided.

One of the worst types of

By K. J. Spurgeon

One of the worst types of noise, for me, is living next door to screaming children who are naturally LOUD all the time, and who belong to parents who allow them to remain out of control. In suburbia where homes can often be close together this situation can become a nightmare. I speak from experience. My nerves were totally shot from the constant noise next door. It never ended. Once we relocated to another city, we found peace and quiet in an older wooded neighborhood where wildlife was abundant. It was the worst 5 years of my life living next door to noisy neighbors and screaming children in a new development. Never again.

I completely agree with you!

By gii

I completely agree with you! I am currently living in an apartment and suffering terribly from the horribly LOUD child upstairs. Her mother is also very loud and obnoxious. The child is only two, a girl, but STOMPS about very loudly, and runs loudly indoors, all day long until late night! She begins from 6 or 7 a.m and goes until 9 or 10 at night.. often she jumps from furniture, jumps on the bed, drops heavy objects..and I can hea it all as if it were in my own apartment. I asked the mother not to do laundry at 6 a.m. and to please have her child cease the loud stomping, so they have started doing it as loudly as possible, all the time. The woman even told me that a lot of the stomping is HER, just to be obnoxious! Many times the bratty children of this world are learning it from the people who are raising them! There is no reason for a child, any child to be inconsiderately and unreasonably loud indoors! A child can be active outside, and a good parent will see to it that they have adequate play time outside and behave properly indoors. This is particularly true if one lives in crowded environments. Good parenting is a key part to children becoming good citizens.

Young children sure can and

By Margaret Boyles

Young children sure can and do make lots of noise—playing, trying new things, clamoring for attention, fighting, getting hurt, shouting for joy over some new discovery...

Depending on both the circumstances at hand and your perspective, children's noise can seem musical (even magical) or downright annoying.

I'm not really sure if the kids in your old neighborhood were especially ill-behaved and left to run amok, or simply engaging in normal, exuberant childhood behavior that sometimes needs temperng by a caring parent or other adult.

But  K.J., since you say children are "naturally loud" (which would include each of us at one period of our lives), would you have parents "control" this natural behavior? If so, how, and to what degree? 

No doubt you deserve your quiet wooded environment. Everyone needs a peaceful refuge from whatever noise disturbs their peace of mind.

I find that sitting beside a

By State-of-Jefferson

I find that sitting beside a mountain stream produces a calmness beyond compare. Although not silent, the cascading water is extreemly soothing.
I sometimes hear music in the water!

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