Why Noise Bothers You, Even if You Think It Doesn't

Can someone please stop that noise?. (Photo: Ika-Ink/Flickr)

Like Schopenhauer, as I have gotten older, I have become more and more frustrated with noise. So much so that my boyfriend and I both cite it as the number one reason we need to leave New York City, notoriously one of the loudest urban areas in the U.S. (It doesn't help that the private school across from the apartment, which provides a lovely view — also engages in major renovations every summer, meaning that when the weather is nicest, our windows need to be closed; early morning garbage and recycling truck noise is year-round.) I wake at odd times of night (normally I sleep solidly through my eight hours of shut-eye), get wakened early, and get ragefully angry when I can't get back to sleep. The noise makes me stressed and angry.

According to George Prochnik's opinion article in the New York Times, "Around 1850, Schopenhauer pronounced noise to be the supreme archenemy of any serious thinker." The famous German philosopher, who is most well-known for his very progressive writings, thought that noise was the distraction that prevented focus, and therefore, great thinking.

Science proves he may have been onto something — and not only does noise affect thinking, it can have profound impacts on health. As Prochik writes in the Times, our auditory systems are very sensitive, and for good reason.

"Mammalian hearing developed primarily as an animal-detector system — and it was crucial to hear every rustle from afar. The evolved ear is an extraordinary amplifier. By the time the brain registers a sound, our auditory mechanism has jacked the volume several hundredfold from the level at which the sound wave first started washing around the loopy whirls of our ears. This is why, in a reasonably quiet room, we actually can hear a pin drop."

That great hearing, and all the attention our brains focus on those potentially dangerous noises, mean that we are primed for action via aural cues. And that constant 'priming' in a noisy world, has direct (and negative) physical effects.

A study in the medical journal, Environmental Health Perspectives in 2009 found that, "even when people stayed asleep, the noise of planes taking off and landing caused blood pressure spikes, increased pulse rates and set off vasoconstriction and the release of stress hormones. Worse, these harmful cardiovascular responses continued to affect individuals for many hours after they had awakened and gone on with their days. As Dr. Wolfgang Babisch, a lead researcher in the field, observed, there is no physiological habituation to noise. The stress of audible assault affects us psychologically even when we don’t consciously register noise."

That's scary data: That even if you feel like you are 'used to' noise, it is still stressing your body, each and every time it happens.

Human beings evolved, for the most part, in a quiet world that was filled with natural sounds, and human voices and music. Noise pollution is more harmful to our bodies than we think, in directly measurable ways, and it's time to start treating it as seriously as air and water pollution if we want to continue to live healthfully in urban environments.