Noise and the Sound Environment 

The Problem 

Noise pollution is increasing. It can cause deafness, noise induced tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and hyperacuisis (overreaction to noise). Further results include irritability, depression, and losing much of the flavor of life.

Why Is It Happening?

Louder environments accompanied by little negative public reaction. The NY Times just surveyed restaurants, clubs and stores in Manhattan. Many were multiply louder than international standards for thoroughly damaging workplace noise.

Why Do Stores and Other Establishments Keep Thing Noisy?

Sales. The sound environment is a critical part of how humans process information—and their surroundings. Loud music, especially with background beats of around 120-135 per minute, make people buy more highly profitable drinks and eat meals quicker, leading to greater turnover. Loud sound environments sometimes keep out “stingy” old folks and bring on the young consumers desired by many businesses.

Why Do People Stand For It?

For many it’s exciting—part of hyperstimulation syndrome (see below.) The negative effects are shrugged off rather like global warming—oh, that will happen in the future, so far off it won’t affect me—until it does.

What Are Our Hunter-Gatherer Bodies Built For?

The sounds of nature. Birdsong may be one reason we love music. At birth we are equipped to hear the simple movement of air particles. In truly wild, natural environments, people hear numerous phenomena for miles—which tells them whether they are in safe or unsafe environments.

Healthy environments are also different from unhealthy ones—ecologically diverse and thriving places sound very different from dead or dying ones. Most forest animal species possess their own  ecological sound niche in both time and pitch. Much of that niche is used, like us, for communication.

Hearing is generally critical to numerous human body function. Lots of your cortex is connected to hearing. We use that brain power for communication; position sense; movement; to determine threat or safety; for pleasure, music, and many other purposes.

Perhaps because the cells involved with hearing are so sensitive, they are also easy to kill. Hearing cells don’t regenerate all that well.

How Much Damage is Self-Induced?

A lot. We are becoming accustomed to very noisy environments. Ear buds can bring music and entertainment directly into the ear canal, seemingly circumventing people’s recognition of early hearing deficits. Losing your hearing? Just crank up the volume. If you’re on an airplane and can easily hear the music coming from the earbuds or headphones of passengers two aisles behind you, you know that person is in trouble.

Because hearing is so important to body and brain function, it’s negative effects are widespread.

Why Is Tinnitus So Bad?

Imagine having a scrim of thick, wavy white lines erratically jump into your visual field every second. That will give you a little idea of why tinnitus is so deleterious. Lots of tinnitus sufferers feel nuts. Many get depressed.

Back in my occupational health training days, OSHA was doing a study of bottling plants and tinnitus. They had to stop the study—too many suicides.

For those who like loud bars, tinnitus can become exacerbated as people drink and smoke.

The Defense Department knows how important ears are to your function. One way to control a crowd and thoroughly gum up people’s brains is to broadcast spatially targeted loud noise.

Why Do People Like Loud Environments?

For similar reasons that they like video games, Transformer and Terminator movies, vibrating dance floors and stimulant drugs. Our rather amazing sensory capacities sometimes like hyperstimulation. When you have an evolutionary quirk, you can certainly make a lot of money on it.

Hyperstimulation syndrome is now becoming part of daily life for many young people, particularly through the medium (and media) of multitasking. It’s not unusual to see students “studying” while simultaneously looking at TV, their cellphones, computer and game monitors.

What’s Bad About Hyperstimulation Syndrome?

1. You don’t learn or remember well. 2. It’s harder to concentrate on tasks. Sustained achievement requires sustained attention 3. Distraction—as in driving or walking while texting—can kill you and others. 4. It prevents analytic thinking—something you really need in many urban environments. 5. It creates more of a need for itself. Just like sugary food in kids promotes their desire for sugar in pretty much every meal, hyperstimulation syndrome can make people demand high levels of stimulation or “entertainment”. This can interfere with capacities for pleasure, work, and social engagement—all critical to long term human regeneration.

Is Too Much Noise A Problem for Everyday Bodily Regeneration?

Certainly. Ask hospital patients. Noise in hospitals is so endemic that people can’t sleep. That decreases their capacity for recovery and the costs of getting well.

It’s also not much fun to sleep near an airport.

What Can I Do To Reduce Noise Damage to My Brain and Body?

Recognize that the problem really is there. Most people now regard noise as a fact of life.

At a wedding I went to recently, the band was so deafening that many of us had to flee outside simply to escape the pain in our ears. Yet most politely stayed inside, even when they weren’t dancing.

So: 1. Don’t go into noisy environments you don’t have to enter. If a club is too loud, stay away. 2. Get hearing protection. Small ear plugs are often cheap, though most work only partially. 3. Try to get out in the wild sometime. Then you can recognize what normal sounds sound like. Kids in particular enjoy the noises of nature.

We’re built for a particular sound environment but live in another. Just as with food, physical activity, and rest, doing what our body is built to do leads to a healthier life and a greater capacity to regenerate yourself—and live happily.

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