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Silence is golden. It can also drive you crazy.
There's definitely such a thing as "too quiet"
Sssssshhhhh.
Sssssshhhhh. Courtesy Shutterstock
I

t's nearly impossible to find a state of true silence. But some people go out of their way to find it.

Consider this 2012 New York Times article, called "Whisper of the Wild," about a group of scientists led by Davyd Betchkal. In 2006, Betchkal decided to trudge deep into the woods in an attempt to record 60 days' worth of pure silence, or more correctly, natural sound. The team sought a quiet undisturbed by the chafing of nylon snow pants, the crunch of snow underfoot, or even plane engines miles away. They wanted a silence so pure that it proved quite elusive. By the time the article was published six years later, the team had amassed a mere 36 days worth of silent recordings — barely half of the original goal.

But what is it about the mysterious lack of audible stimulation that seems so appealing in the first place? Perhaps it's the promise of being alone with our thoughts, fully and completely, without the distraction of external noise. It seems fitting, in a way, that when we revere people we've lost, it's customary to include a moment of silence. It forces us to think about them.

Silence can certainly be overrated though. After all, sound plays a critical role in our very existence. An article by Benedikt Grothe called "How Evolution Has Opened Our Ears" for the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology suggests that hearing evolved as a way for us to protect ourselves from danger:

In insects, hearing probably arose in connection with communication within the species — generally with the selection and spatial localization of a mating partner. Hearing not linked to reproduction tends to be the exception here. For example, some insects can hear bat echo-location calls and attempt to escape from them. Certain parasitic flies find their hosts by recognizing and localizing the hosts' communication sounds. Whether hearing in vertebrates was developed primarily to detect prey and avoid predators or as part of a communication system, we do not know — not least because our concept of the evolution of hearing is still changing. [PDF]

Hearing helps you detect threats. Even animals that are "deaf" — insects, snakes, and fish, for example — have other mechanisms to sense vibrations, essentially allowing them to "hear" with their bodies.

If the ability to hear sound is such an evolutionary necessity, why do we crave a mute button? Think of it this way: When we listen to our environment, we are constantly taking in information and analyzing it to judge whether something is a danger, whether or not our native fight or flight response should take hold. Silence means we are safe. It means we can relax.

Needless to say, a dearth of sound can be troubling. The Daily Mail recently published an article on the quietest place on Earth: The Anechoic Chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis. The room blocks 99 percent of all external noise using 3.3 feet of thick fiberglass, acoustic wedges, double walls of insulated steel, and a foot of concrete.

No one has been able to stay in the room for more than 45 minutes, citing hallucinations from the quiet. Steven Orfield, the company's founder, told the Daily Mail: "When it's quiet, ears will adapt. The quieter the room, the more things you hear. You'll hear your heart beating, sometimes you can hear your lungs, hear your stomach gurgling loudly. In the anechoic chamber, you become the sound." Silence is suddenly not a comfort — it's terrifying.

And yet, there still exists an allure to silence, a desire to block out the noise that bombards us, day in, day out. It's a desire to focus on our own thoughts and become aware of the things that are going on inside our own heads. Sound, like any other facet of the human experience, is best when taken in moderation.

Michael Hedrick
Michael Hedrick is a writer and photographer in Boulder, CO. His work has appeared in Salon, Thought Catalog and various other places across the web. His book, Schizophrenic Connections, is available here.

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