That wasn’t quite right, but the noise pollution that 19th-century neurologists worried about is a real health danger, researchers now say. Increasingly, they believe that quiet is a long-neglected component of health. Loud sounds arouse parts of our brains connected to fear, which in turn trigger a spike in blood pressure and stress hormones like cortisol. These adaptive mechanisms helped our ancestors avoid, say, a bear attack. But if they’re triggered day after day, they take a toll on our cardiovascular system. Today, your flexible health-care spending account is likely to list earplugs alongside crutches and knee braces as a qualified medical expense.
And for good reason: A 2007 study by the WHO Noise Environmental Burden on Disease working group found that “long-term exposure to traffic noise” in cities may account for around 3 percent of deaths from coronary heart disease in Europe each year — that’s about 210,000 people annually killed (in part) by noise. Other studies show that children who attend school near airports have poorer results on memory and reading-comprehension tests. Ironically, all the magazine articles I kept encountering about the dangers of noise pollution had only been contributing to the noise in my head. Calling for calm, they produced in its place an anxiety-inducing hum: I better get some quiet, or else.
WHY DO WE MISTAKE silence for peace? Silence is peaceful because it reduces stimulation. And silent places tend to be slower places. As I sat by the river in the rain forest, in rushed all the thoughts that noise had blotted out, and held at bay. I felt like an iPhone trying to download a huge cache of emails and texts after a long airplane flight: Here, announcing themselves, were my father’s illness, the insistent reality of my new son, my ambitions for my book.
But if silence is so peaceful, I wondered, why do many of us choose to live in busy, noisy cities? Ours is a poetic dilemma: We want silence, but we also want to blot it out. We confuse silence for peace — then go a little crazy when we have it. After all, silence allows troubling realities: what Philip Larkin called, in “Aubade,” his brilliant 1977 poem about predawn silence, the “arid interrogation” with ourselves over “the dread of dying.” The truest kind of silence is the ultimate one. Is that why we choose to live in noise, through centuries of complaining about it? Adrift in it, we can duck confrontation with the metaphysical and the existential: the piercing, enduring regret at how you treated an old, estranged friend; the inequities evident on every corner of the city; the fear that your life has been a project of self-delusion — that its elaborate armature, its gilded hand-stitched brocade, may in fact be moth-eaten.
The next day, up the coast at Ruby Beach, about 30 miles west of the rain forest, I walked for miles at low tide. Cormorants wheeled raucously around the peak of an island headland gnawed into existence by waves pounding it over thousands of years. They had left only the hard core of volcanic rock behind, a high isle that becomes accessible at low tide. In the distance children were cartwheeling on the sand. I sat on a piece of driftwood — a huge fallen Sitka, dried out by years on the beach. Though it was noon and the sun was strong, mist clung to the headland, blanketing the beach like something from Emily Brontë. It was the kind of landscape that promised transformation, a wardrobe opening onto Narnia.
Only on the wild beach, the transformation was a subtler one — an inner rather than an outer shift. In quiet, it turns out, we perceive more — our senses spring to life. I noticed two fallen trees whose root systems were intertwined, so entangled it would be impossible to separate them without damaging them both. Instead of revving like an engine trying to drive ever onward, my mind slowed, slinking sideways and inward. Entering a cove, I realized just how habituated I am to noise when my mind kept interpreting the loud waves as the roar of engines.
We typically think of the need for silence as a way of communicating with our inner selves. Paradoxically, though, during the quiet days I spent in Olympic Park, I found myself becoming “less inwardly focused than communally aware,” as Prochnik put it, describing a Quaker meeting he once attended. Perhaps that’s because the park is a public space. A national reserve, it is meant for all of us, unlike commercial quiet spaces where the emphasis is on personal renewal. In my case, I was reminded of all the “countless silken ties,” as Robert Frost wrote, that keep us bonded to those around us.
What announced themselves in the existential silence of old rocks and an old ocean were memories — of my mother, who died almost 10 years ago, and the deep sorrow of her never knowing my son, and all that he would lose by not knowing her. These thoughts were like music. Rather than my having them, they were having me, and I climbed atop a pile of beach logs — enormous spruces, some 50 feet long, piled up like matchsticks by the roaring ocean — and let the driftwood warm my feet and the silence pool in my ears. To hear ourselves, we sometimes have to flee ourselves, diving into silence until we’re uncomfortably alone with the noise within.
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