How much is ‘noise versus silence’ an issue in your daily life? If you’re like most Americans, you’re surrounded by some kind of sound everywhere you turn: cell phones, computers, electronic games of all kinds, music blasting from iPods, the booming of someone’s bass turned up loud as it will go in the car next to you. People have tried to get away from this barrage of sound and noise for many years. Now, the latest movement in the wellness industry is silence therapy. Folks from big-name entertainers to common people are seeking ways to shut off the noise and retreat, sometimes literally, from being bombarded over and over again.
But is there any kind of scientific evidence to back up claims of silence therapy gurus that this actually works to your benefit? To answer this question, we have to examine first the impact of noise on our bodies and minds.
An Introduction to Noise
Some significant research has gone into showing the negative effects of noise on people’s physical and psychological well-being. The results have been surprising in some ways, reinforcing what we already know in others.
Noise is measured in decibels. Some people are much more sensitive to noise than this summary would suggest:
- Fifty decibels – Annoyance begins at a level of approximately 50 decibels in the daytime. This is the level of noise in a fairly quiet residential area.
- Seventy decibels is more than twice the level of noise than 50. This is the level of noise of a vacuum cleaner in your home. An increase of ten decibels equals about a doubling of the noise level.
- At 80 decibels, you have the risk of damage to your hearing after eight hours of exposure. This is the level of sound of a garbage disposal in your kitchen or the passing of a freight train at about 15 yards.
- One hundred decibels is the equivalent of a motorcycle or jackhammer. After eight hours of exposure to this level of noise, you could have serious hearing damage.
- Over 130 decibels, or the level of noise produced by a military aircraft take-off from an aircraft carrier, you experience pain in your ears. This is approximately 64 times as loud as that of a vacuum cleaner mentioned above.
Not many of us are exposed to the kind of noise over 130 decibels, but the exposure we have from day to day activities and the overall noise in our environment adds up. Many (if not most) people eventually have some hearing loss due to the noisy environment in which they live.
Negative Effects of Noise
Noise is not something you can ignore. If you don’t like something you see, look somewhere else or close your eyes. It’s no longer a problem. If you put something in your mouth that doesn’t taste good, you can spit it out and never order that again.
But what can you do about constant, never-ending noise? Of course, you could buy noise-canceling headphones (if you can afford them), but do you want to go through life wearing headphones every day, all day?
The physiology of noise is such that we humans attend to it even in deep sleep. Movement of the tiny bones of the ear is transmitted to the cochlea, a snail-shaped formation inside the ear. This structure converts the movement into electrical signals that go first to the amygdala. This brain structure has a lot to do with memory and emotion. As soon as the amygdala is stimulated by sound, it produces cortisol, the stress-fighting hormone, along with other hormones. Essentially, the amygdala responds to loud sounds as a stressor. Because of this, people who live in noisy environments are constantly under stress from that noise.
Noise, therefore, even at levels below those corresponding to potential damage to hearing, is treated as a danger signal by the brain, even as we sleep. So the body responds with the familiar flight or fight response that occurs with exposure to any stressor.
Some fairly recent research suggested even music, regardless of the type, led to a state of arousal in subjects. This arousal could be measured by changes in the bloodstream and in the circulation of blood to the brain. Even “restful” music led to this arousal state adrenal fatigue.
The European Heart Journal reported an interesting and alarming study that showed both men and women are more likely to have a higher risk of heart attack when exposed to prolonged noise. Men’s risk increased by 50 percent, while women’s risk increased by an incredible 300 percent!
Reasons for this dramatic increase were said to be the production of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline in noisy environments. Increased levels of these stress hormones have been linked closely to heart failure, strokes, high blood pressure, and immune issues.
How prevalent is the detrimental effect of noise? In 2001, an estimate was given that up to 12.5 percent of American children between the ages of 6 and 19 years suffered from hearing impairment in one or both ears. Why this damage? Up to 80 percent of school children have personal music players going for long periods of time at significant levels. Regardless of warnings by the manufacturers of these products, there is little if any regulation of this kind of damaging noise. Even from parents.
While temporary exposure to noise at harmful levels can be reversed, the long-term effect of such exposure may not be reversible.