Shut Up and Listen!

One Man's Quest for Absolute Silence

Is tinnitus really God?

Some say ringing in the ears means the Big Man's calling. It's a theory ...

I spent two years searching for total silence in places like the high desert of Colorado, 1.6 miles underground in a nickel mine in north Ontario, and Proust's bedroom in Paris. I thought I was getting close to my goal till I ran into tinnitus.
Tinnitus is a ringing in your ears and any kind of noise in your hearing apparatus that doesn't come from outside and you might think it no big deal, almost funny--until you get it.
What I learned about tinnitus in researching my book on absolute silence convinced me that tinnitus might, just conceivably, be God...
Thirty to 50 million Americans have tinnitus. One third of those have it so bad that it drives them half crazy and they go to doctors to fix it. The fix rarely cures them. Tinnitus is more often than not associated with hearing damage. One out of three sufferers get it from toxic sound environments.
War, with its explosions and machine guns and bombs, is one such environment. The Marine Corps Times reported in 2009 that tinnitus is the number one medical problem among soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
All this is interesting, you say, but how is tinnitus God? The answer lies in how it works--and how that fits with one of the classic arguments for the existence of a deity.
The catalysts for tinnitus are numerous. They range from howitzer blasts to antidepressants, ear wax to whiplash to mercury poisoning. But the chief underlying cause is this: our hearing system itself makes noise.
Human hearing is a beautiful, sensitive system of organic microphones, signal processors, amplifiers--like your home stereo, only better. And what happens when you switch on your home stereo? It gives off a very faint hum. The same is true of your hearing apparatus. Like any sound system it generates its own little hum when working.
What people don't realize is that everyone, most probably, has tinnitus. A famous test in Sweden in the 1950s took 80 college students who swore they did not have tinnitus and put each one in a soundproof environment. Ninety-three percent found they in fact did hear ringing in their ears. If the soundproof room had been quieter, it seems likely all of them would have heard the sounds their hearing system made.
When, as part of the book research, I spent time in the most advanced anechoic chamber in the world I found myself assaulted by a rhythmic scraping sound that I'd never heard before and that must have been generated by my own body.
When I got myself tested for "objective" tinnitus--tinnitus generated in the ear itself, and thus measurable by instruments--it turned out my ears were giving off a cute ballad in the 3,000 Hertz frequency range.
Of course there is a difference between a normal, usually inaudible standby hum and the obnoxious ringing experienced by those suffering from severe tinnitus. But the point remains the same: we generate our own sounds, separate from the outside sounds our hearing sense is supposed to pick up and report.
Which brings us to the neo-Platonist argument for the existence of God. Plato posited that human knowledge is but a reflection of pre-existing forms, perfect and divinely created.
The French philosopher René Descartes in his Third Meditation honed this argument, writing that imperfect and limited humans could not, by themselves, have come up with the idea of an infinite, perfect deity. Although other philosophers have criticized the logic of this argument, it subsists in many shapes: as a notion of soul, as a version of intelligent design--any philosophy that says men and women, restricted by their senses to observations of the natural world, are just too puny to invent these high-falutin' ideas by themselves. It follows they must have copied something else, something separate and perfect. Something made by god.
But look at what tinnitus shows: we do in fact create forms that have nothing to do with our consciousness--that appear to come out of thin air. Tones that seem totally independent of our senses.
According to Plato and Descartes, tinnitus would therefore be God, or at least some manifestation of Him or Her.
Even now, in rural India, ringing in the ears is thought to be of divine origin. This belief was common in earlier times, before it was possible to test for tinnitus. The 19th century composer Robert Schumann, for example, was driven nuts by a persistent tone, in the key of A, that played in his head and that he thought was sent there by the Man Upstairs.
In the course of my book research I learned that Schumann was being treated for syphilis, which at the time involved administering heavy doses of mercury. Mercury overdose is a surefire way to acquire tinnitus.
I suppose religious types will see my demonstration as a sour, reductionist exercise, a poor alternative to the lacy poetics of god, soul and pre-existing form.
In fact, though, it's the other way around. Pre-existing forms are absolutes, dead-ends, by their very nature beyond the reach of human analysis.
Studying tinnitus, on the other hand--and through it, the whole stunning, intricate panoply of pick-up and feedback by which we hear and edit our environment--opens a new world of experiment, discovery and wonder. It allows us to listen more fully, and appreciate better the subtlety and grace of the sounds we hear.
And not incidentally, it focuses attention on one of the more pervasive, if often unrecognized, maladies of the age.

George Michelsen Foy, a novelist and journalist, teaches creative writing at NYU. His latest book, Zero Decibels: The Quest for Silence, is published by Scribner.

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