The Politics of Silence

Is our high-noise world harming your health?

Posted Apr 25, 2017

Our world is a noisy place. Smartphones beep relentlessly with texts and voicemail. Loud piped-in music assaults our ears everywhere we go--from supermarkets to gyms to doctor's offices. Cars honk, doors slam, and we can't enjoy a quiet meal in a restaurant without the constant chatter of a TV show.

At home, we are constantly interrupted by beeps, dings, and pings. We tend to take electronic noises for granted as the price we pay for the conveniences of modern life. Who would want to do away with their smartphone? Yet, there is a hidden cost to our health from these noises of which we are mostly unaware.  

Noise and our health

The World Health Organization describes noise pollution as an environmental health burden second only to air pollution. This noise level, argues the WHO, is harmful to our health: "Excessive noise seriously harms human health and interferes with people’s daily activities at school, at work, at home and during leisure time. It can disturb sleep, cause cardiovascular and psycho physiological effects, reduce performance and provoke annoyance responses and changes in social behavior."

It's no wonder that attention to noise in medical environments like hospitals is on the rise. Hospitals are noisy places. Florence Nightingale observed that any patient subject to the rustling of a nurse's dress is being abused. Today's nurses and the nursing environment in general are far louder than Florence Nightingale could have imagined. Machines beep and whine, doors slam,  doctors, nurses, patients and visitors talk loudly over the constant din of medical machinery, 

 Research has shown that a high noise environment increases patient agitation and aggression. High noise also leads to less effective pain management, slower wound healing, sleep deprivation, delirium and an increased risk of medical and nursing errors. 

Why pursue silence?

A new documentary film, In Pursuit of Silence, is a powerful reminder that the constant man-made chatter of industrial societies breaks our connection to the natural world--to sounds like bird calls, wind and running water. Without silence and a connection to nature, we lose our capacity for reflection and introspection. Children, especially, need a connection to nature to stay calm and focused. 

 Pico Iyer, author of The Art of Stillness, argues that silence is necessary for our mental health. We need stillness," he says. That is why many people are turning to silent pursuits like yoga and meditation. Internet "fasts" and internet "Sabbaths," when we unplug from electronics for a day or two, spring from the awareness of the physical and mental health benefits of silence. Iyer says that these are not New Age fads but actually a return to the ancient wisdom of living in connection with nature.

Taking a break from noise can help kids too

We know from research that giving a child an internet and television "fast" for a week or two can reduce symptoms of ADHD. A quiet setting for a child to do homework, without the background din of television and smart phones, can help the child concentrate on her work.

Is silence becoming a commodity available only to the rich?

It's no wonder that silence has become a valuable commodity in our noisy society, a commodity that unfortunately is accessible mainly to the rich. Patients are misdiagnosed more often in dangerously noisy hospitals The rich can afford private rooms, where a doctor can make a decision without the incessant din of a neighboring patient's television set. Low income children attend noisier schools which leads to difficulty focusing.

And of course only the rich can afford quiet vacation spots like Mar a Lago, where vacationers can relax peacefully with only the crash of waves and the calls of birds to interrupt the stillness. 

Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D. is the author of A Disease called Childhood: Why ADHD became an American Epidemic.