Shut Up and Listen!

One Man's Quest for Absolute Silence

Why Americans Are Becoming Functionally Deaf

Our noisy world kills hearing. But why do we embrace the noise?

"Americans are functionally deaf." These words of sound expert Greg Miller are as true as they are unrecognized. I would expand his statement to include most citizens of any modern, first-world society, all of whose hearing is being chronically screwed up, and whose ability to listen is fast becoming a joke. Reader--do you hear me? Can you make out what I say? More importantly: will you even listen?

The process of going deaf in this society happen in two ways. The first is physical. Ever since the industrial revolution we have been exposed to out-of-control sound. The correlation between loud noise and hearing damage is simple: high sound-levels cause damage. Even not-very-loud sound on a chronic basis degrades our hearing. Every bang or clank or non-stop buzz of excess noise breaks some of our stereocilia—the microscopic reeds in our ears that vibrate to sound waves and electronically convert them to what we hear. Once a reed is broken, it's dead. It cannot be replaced. When all our cilia go, we hear nothing, by definition.

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One can argue that the post-industrial society has cut the numbers of loud steelworks, roaring textile mills and hooting steam whistles in many countries like the U.S. and this is true; but it has also finally converted our societies from farming to urban, turned tens of thousands of square miles of noise-absorbing fields, marsh and woodland into highways and stripmalls, and multiplied exponentially the size of cities.

Cities, with or without factories, depend on noise; they create it, hoard it, thrive on it without cease. Wake up at 3 a.m. in New York, Cincinnati, L.A., Atlanta: you will hear a constant hum, something I think of as the "monsterbreath." You can't get away from it. When I measured the sound levels of streets in my New York neighborhood I consistently came up with readings around 70 dB, as loud as a vacuum cleaner held three feet away, a volume the Environmental Protection Agency defines as physically harmful. (Many of these data were covered in a previous post.)

According to the EPA. over thirteen million Americans are routinely exposed to similar levels of "excessive sound." A further thirty million are exposed to toxic noise at work. Such volume breaks down our hearing system over time. (Standards in Europe are stricter: There, 55 dB is the upper limit for safe, chronic exposure to sound—and 65 percent of European Union citizens are exposed to levels greater than that.)

And here is the result: One out of 10 Americans is measurably hearing impaired. Hearing loss is the third most common chronic health condition in the U.S. What's even scarier is that the problem is getting worse. The number of Americans with hearing loss grew by over 100 percent from 1971 to 2000, a period when the population grew by roughly 30 percent. Scarier still, the problem is increasingly affecting the young. Forty percent of hearing-impaired Americans are less than 65 years old. One in five kids suffer from some form of hearing damage, according to a study by Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Hearing loss is up 30 percent among teens in the last 30 years, the same study found. Fifteen percent of recent college grads have equal or more hearing loss than their parents. Two million deaf Americans are 19 years of age.

Some of the culprits are obvious. Urban noise, jet engines, rock concerts. But one new and serious factor—one that is especially damaging to young people—is personal noise generators: MP3 players, iPods, cellphones, various species of headphones, loud video game soundtracks. These are not obnoxious machine noises, such as HVAC or computer fans, that we have to put up with to keep our job. They are chronic, often ridiculously loud sound environments that we choose to live in. So this is the second of the two ways we kill hearing: in this case, deliberately, willingly, for reasons I will go into in a later post.

To see evidence of how this willful damage happens you only have to go out on the streets, take a bus, walk in the mall. Everywhere, between a fifth and half of the people you see live in a sound environment created by personal mechanical devices piped straight into their hearing systems with headphones. Experts at Boston's Children's Hospital reckon these headsets routinely generate noise levels equal to those you'd get from a 747 taking off, if you were standing 100 feet away. Dr. Zheng-yi of Harvard Medical School has exposed mice to iPod sound levels and measured concrete hearing damage. Other experts recommend never turning the MP3 volume to a level where a person sitting next to you in a relatively quiet setting can hear its sound. Yet as we all know, most people play their MP3s and other players at levels far higher. …

So it's not surprising we're all going deaf. What is interesting is how little we are conscious of it, and how little we are aware of how much we are cutting off, and often how much we are damaging, our other sensory input: sight, touch, taste and smell. In a second post I will explain how we wilfully degrade our senses in general, and more importantly, why we not only go along with this, but seek it out. In a third blog I will talk about how this effect goes beyond the senses to change how we think and live in the world. In a final post I will discuss how we can fight these effects of desensitization and mediation, and not only regain control over our environment, but return lost quality to our lives.

 

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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