As I ride the train every morning, I am reminded of what quiet and/or silence really is. That brief moment when you can hear a pin drop in a packed train car, when someone rustling an umbrella or opening a bag catches your attention because it is a harsh invader in the heavy fog of silence. Everyone seems tired, there aren’t any jovial conversations being had — just the undeniable silence that leaves only the rhythmic steel wheels churning along the rails. When did silence become so thick?
When did we start to look at silence as a golden opportunity to simply sit in quiet and unwind, as a rare thing that we actively seek on our busiest days when our ears are ringing and our brains simply cannot process anymore sound? When did we start to use the enjoyment of silence as a “positive” aspect to hearing loss, often saying to someone with a hearing loss that they can “enjoy the silence” while those of use with normal hearing don’t “have that luxury”?
The world we live in today is filled with noise, chaos, and a never-ending assault of acoustic events that captivate our attention and ultimately create unconscious habituation. Have you thought of the noises you hear on a daily basis? In your home, your car, your work environment? Are you even aware of them? Have you found yourself using adjectives like “eerie” and “unsettling” to describe the feeling when the hum of the refrigerator goes off and there is no longer any background noise? Or when the power goes out and you hear a sudden change in the acoustic environment around you? It is then that you can truly hear the silence, and you are left to deal with how it makes you feel. So — how does it make you feel? Uneasy? Scared? Joyous? Content?
As I travel the world I have experienced nights in various hotels, both near and far from road noise, highways, construction, trains, horns, whistles, cowbells and farm equipment — you name it, I’ve heard it. And then, when it’s time to leave, I realize that I don’t hear those sounds anymore. My brain has learned and adapted to my environment and the noise it contains, and I have simply lived through it all. However, I have noticed that it is becoming more difficult for me to adapt and therefore it takes me longer to settle in a new place and get a good night’s rest. When I go to bed there is noise, when I wake up there is noise. It is not until I step on the train every morning that I find my daily dose of silence. A grand total of 10 minutes on the train.
From an educational perspective, I know that there is research identifying the biological, physical, psychological, and mental impacts constant noise has on us. The anatomical structures in our bodies are constantly moving — they get no rest, they are overworked. Our mental processes become strained due to a lack of opportunities to refresh and recharge, while the psychological impacts not only affect our personal lives but also our professional ones.
However, I am intrigued by our continued acceptance of the noise around us as well as our lack of motivation to change the behaviors that create it. We surrender to the world of noise we live in, as though we have no power to change it. When did our perspectives change? As the world continues to grow around us, becoming more industrialized and busier every day, will we continue down this path where silence becomes a commodity — a good or service that people can market and sell? Would you buy a ticket or pay an entrance fee to sit in a quiet room at the end of the day to collect your thoughts and ‘unwind’ — or do you already? Do you seek out silence?
While my inner audiologist is screaming out “it’s all about sound!”, I find myself conflicted. I enjoy being in my soundproof booth at the end of the day as the quiet envelops me. Yet I find it hard to counsel my clients when they tell me that the noise they are hearing with their hearing aids is “too much” and they don’t want to hear it all. A common answer you hear from other audiologists may be “we all have to listen to it, it’s normal.” As of this moment, here and now — on this very day — I challenge them all (and you) with the simple question: why should we have to?