Pop quiz time! Please put down your phones for a minute or two. No cheating.
1. Where is the quietest place in the world?
a) Somewhere in Antarctica.
b) A remote section of the wilderness, perhaps in the Sahara/Siberia/an uninhabited island.
c) The bottom of the ocean.
d) A Buddhist temple in Nepal, during meditation session.
e) A torture chamber/dungeon created by sadists.
Think you know the answer? Ok, here’s another question for you.
2. What is silence?
a) The opposite of noise.
b) The absence of noise.
c) The absence of intentional or human generated noise.
d) What silence, it doesn’t exist!
e) I have no idea what you’re asking. Stop this nonsense already!
Ok, ok. Please bear with me, just one more question to go.
3. What does silence sound like?
d) What silence, it doesn’t exist!
e) Again. STOP. THIS. NONESENSE.
That’s it, we’re done! Still there?
Before we get to the philosophical/nonsensical questions regarding silence, let’s delve into the quietest place on Earth. If you selected a), b) or c) then you’re clearly a logical person; a remote uninhabited area with little to no wildlife or vegetation ought to be very quiet. But, while Antarctica may be devoid of human noise during the winter seasons (certainly not during the summer, as scientists and tourist take ground), you still have Mother Nature to contend with; Antarctica is officially the coldest, windiest, and driest continent on Earth.
A less extreme landscape, as per option b), could, theoretically, offer less of Mother Nature’s mumbling and grumbling. But then you have the inescapable rumblings from up above, planes. There is no altitude that a commercial jet can fly at which it is not audible on the ground, and the sound of any given aircraft can be heard, on average, between three to eight minutes as it passes overhead. Plus, noise from the largest aircraft can, on a clear day, travel up to 160km (100 miles). While no commercial flights travel across Antarctica, they do cruise over a vast proportion of Earth’s wildernesses, including the North Pole. Even in the depths of the Amazon rainforest 1,900 km (1,200 miles) from the nearest city, and therefore one of the most remote places on Earth, sounds from aircrafts can be heard once or twice per hour.
Finally, though less explored and understood the ocean depths, option c), can also be ruled out; beyond the audible laments of fish and whales, there are also earthquakes and the drones of passing ships to contend with. Let alone the fact that sound travels more than four times faster in water compared to air, and reaches much further.[i]
By now you’re either thinking a) Get to the point woman, or b) For the last time, PLEASE, stop this nonsense!!! Fine, I’ll give it to you straight; the answer is not d) a Buddhist temple, which means it must be e) a torture chamber, right? It is! Sort of. If you replace ’sadist’ with ‘scientist’ (you don’t have to, they may be one and the same to you) and ‘torture chamber’ with ‘anechoic chamber in Minnesota, USA.’
The place is called Orfield Laboratories and it’s the home of the world’s quietest place, as accredited by the Guinness World Book of Records. This anechoic – which means echo free – chamber is a room made of three feet fiberglass acoustic edges, double walls of insulated steel and foot-thick concrete. It’s 99.99 percent sound absent and measures at –9.4 decibels (the unit used to measure the intensity of sound). Incase you’re wondering a quiet bedroom in the middle of the night measures around 30 decibels. Yes, it is that quiet in this chamber, which is predominantly used as a testing facility for product manufactures, enabling them to accurately test the volume and quality of sounds emitted from their products.
Sounds like (pun intended) an appealing room, no? Don’t we all crave a reprieve from the chaotic noise of our daily lives? Who hasn’t wished for pure, unadulterated silence every once in a while? Why struggle to meditate when you can just hop into this chamber for an hour or two, a genius way to relieve stress and help us all relax! Why don’t we have chambers like this everywhere?
Why? Because you’d start to go crazy, that’s why. According to Steven Orfield the founder and president of Orfield Labs, the longest anyone has managed to survive in this theoretically relaxing chamber is 45 minutes. In fact for many visitors the silence is not simply disconcerting or uncomfortable, it becomes so unbearable that they begin to hallucinate. So, if you answered c) torture to question 3 you’re definitely familiar with the defining sound of silence. A sound I’m now beginning to find the courage to experience and explore.
Most of us don’t realize how silence adverse we are, how much time and energy we spend running away from silence, and, most importantly, how terrified of silence we actually are. Think about it, from the moment our alarm clocks beep us awake we’re faced with a cacophony of TV commentators, radio jingles, children’s screams, car horns, telephone brings, keyboard taps, etc. On top of that is the constant, unavoidable, chatter that comes with human interaction. And when we’re not inundated with external noises we have our internal orchestra to deal with, led by the over powering belts from the horn section, aka our relentless minds.
Over the past few weeks I have begun to develop an entirely new understanding of silence. Surprisingly so given that I am a self-aware, soft-spoken introvert, someone who relishes introspection, practices meditation (albeit inconsistently) and has no qualms going days without speaking to another individual (yes, I am very much a loner). I’ve come to realize that while I have an intimate relationship with solitude, my relationship with silence is akin that with my dentist; I know he does very important work that is vital to my health and well being, and I also know that in reality visiting him is almost always far less painful then I imagine. Yet I’m absolutely terrified of him and do my best to avoid him, even if it means tolerating the pain of a toothache.
What differentiates my recent experiences with all the days of solitude I’ve experienced in the past is predominantly a matter of intention. For the first time I’ve been attempting to proactively seek silence, and experience my reactions from a slightly detached, objective perspective. This is different from meditation, in that I’m not trying to focus my attention or self-regulate my mind, nor am I seeking stillness or pure awareness. I’ve simply been trying to go about my daily activities in as much silence as I can comfortably conjure up. Hence, no TV blaring, no background music playing, as little intentionally self-generated noise as I can muster, just the sounds of whatever it is that I’m doing, my internal self, and the natural state of my surroundings.
And guess what? I have, for the most part, been failing miserably. After four weeks the only time I can consistently sustain periods of silence longer than an hour or two is when I’m writing (like now). Even reading, which I’ve always loved doing and used to happily do in extended periods of silence as a child, I start to get anxious after 90 or so minutes of external silence. Or I fall asleep. But put some quiet music in the background and I can read for hours. I’ve found that when doing any other kind of work or task in silence I run out of gas far quicker – a task that I can work on for hours with the TV on tires me after 40 minutes of silence.
Silence is hard, silence is exhausting, silence is LOUD and scary. Silence rudely reminds you of your fragile humanity while making you question your very existence. Silence forces you to hear sounds that you have been blissfully avoiding, such as that low pitch humming in your ears, and those you never knew existed. Was that the sound of my lungs expanding or a brain vessel bursting? Is my heartbeat always that loud or am I about to go into cardiac arrest? Are there worms in my stomach? Or in my head? Is that a ghost I hear speaking to me? Is it the grim reaper? AM I ABOUT TO DIE?????
Cue the hallucinations, panic attacks and blasts of very, very loud heavy metal music to calm myself down.
On one hand it’s clear that a large part of this behavior is learnt. I never needed the background noise of a television to play with my Barbie dolls, nor did I need (or even want to) carry my Discman when going for a run as a teenager. I can vividly remember numerous nights spent silently staring into candle flames as a child, accustomed to power rations, flickers of light and dark shadows. Now, leave me – the very mature 30 year old that I am – alone in my apartment with no power and I can promise you that my entire street block will be terrorized by my howls of fear and/or call 911 to alert the authorities of a wolf attack in Brooklyn.
But on the other hand, though adults twenty or thirty years ago may have been able to last in Orfield’s anechoic chamber longer than 45 minutes, at some point they too would start to loose their minds. So while we’ve become a society of continuously distracted, hyper stimulated individuals, we have built-in limitations in our ability to endure sensory deprivation. In other words, take away stimuli that we rely on and our brains start to send error signals (i.e. discomfort), and/or make stuff up (i.e. hallucinations). Take away more than one vital stimulus for an extended period of time and our brains begin to crash.
Why? Why or how have I become so acutely fearful of silence despite a relatively decent amount of life experience with silence (compared to digital natives, those who are young enough not to have experienced a pre-Internet/cell phone/digitized world)? What’s going on inside our brains to make a lack of noise so unbearable? Why or how has sound become so integral to our existence? Is it pure sound we depend on or something else, perhaps the meaning we attribute to the sound? If so, are there forms of silence that are more bearable than others? And how do people with hearing impairments experience silence, and what can we learn from them?
Whether or not any of these questions matter is entirely subjective. But given the intensity of my own reactions to silence they matter enough to me to explore things further, and attempt to convey answers, or at least reasonable guesses, in the near future. Though to do so I realize I will need to spend more time in silence. Eeek. Care to join me?
Published in December 2014