science of us

How to Make Things Quieter

Photo: L Brinck/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Last fall I moved into a new apartment, and although I love it, it’s also right near a highway. The windows were closed when I first visited, so I didn’t immediately notice the noise. I did notice the heat, but I thought, When I live here, I’ll open the windows. Which is what I did, at which point I was hit with what felt like a wall of swooshing car sounds, and I had a little meltdown. I can’t live here, I’ll lose my mind. I could’ve kept the windows closed, but the apartment was so warm that even with the radiators off it wasn’t an option. I Googled, “How to break your lease,” ordered an air conditioner, and fell asleep looking up the ways people adjust to life near highways. Most comforting was this MetaFilter comment: “When I moved in, I thought, I have made a terrible mistake. I could hear the road noise clearly in my bedroom. I don’t really notice it now, though — I have just gotten used to it.”

Within a few days I also adjusted (I didn’t need the air conditioner), and I would actually say that the noise now, almost, kind of, in a way sounds like the ocean (like a “Jetsons”-y kind of ocean). I do use a white noise machine at night, though, and I also bought earplugs and noise-canceling headphones. (I rarely use them, but it’s nice to know they’re there.)

During my “research,” I kept coming across studies suggesting that some (or all?) people never really do get used to living somewhere noisy, though. At the time, I glossed over those in favor of anecdotes that said otherwise, but the most disturbing ones suggest that even if people feel as if they’ve adjusted to living near airports or highways, they still sleep worse, have higher blood pressure, and excrete more stress hormones than people who don’t.

In 2011, the World Health Organization estimated that as many as 1.6 million years of healthy life, among Western Europeans at least, are lost each year to noise exposure. (It can be hard to separate noise pollution from air pollution, however, as the authors note.) (The report also has a kind of incredible illustration on its cover.)

A 2015 study found that the United States could save $3.9 billion in cardiovascular-disease–driven health-care costs by reducing environmental noise pollution by 5 decibels (the difference between a shower and a toilet flushing, roughly speaking). Other studies have shown that among children, higher levels of noise at home can be associated with behavioral problems, and at school with impaired cognitive development.

Restaurants are louder than ever, and exercise classes are regularly loud enough to cause hearing damage. And hearing damage apparently affects 24 percent of Americans. (A friend of mine told me she always wears the earplugs offered at SoulCycle.)

On the quieter end of the spectrum, there’s evidence that silence can be healing. (And all roads lead to meditation.)

In his 2014 Nautilus story “This Is Your Brain on Silence,” writer Daniel A. Gross highlighted a 2006 study that found silence was more relaxing than relaxing music. (Or, more specifically, the silent pauses between the relaxing music selections had the most calming effect.) A 2013 study found that silence helps mice grow new brain cells, prompting researchers to suggest a possible connection between silence, depression, and dementia. I liked this way that Gross described silence as a tourist attraction (in Finland, for instance, where “Silence, Please” was a recent marketing campaign): “After all, you can’t weigh, record, or export it. You can’t eat it, collect it, or give it away.” … True.

In a recent TED talk, “Why Noise Is Bad for Your Health — and What You Can Do About It,” noise researcher (and University of Pennsylvania associate professor) Mathias Basner suggests a few ways that people can make their own lives quieter, none of which are especially revolutionary, but all of which are pleasant, if sort of funny to envision actually doing: Complain when things are too loud, he suggests; be especially careful when choosing a new home (visit it at different times throughout a day); talk seriously with children about the dangers of excessive noise (good luck with that!); seek out quiet spaces; and maybe buy noise-canceling headphones. He also makes a case for more stringent noise regulation, and urges everyone to be more conscious of their own personal sonic footprint (don’t vacuum before dawn, say).

There’s a concept I like called “moonbathing,” which is basically just time spent in direct view of the moon, whether it’s outside or through a window (and ideally with as few clothes on as possible). It arguably helps regulate menstrual periods, but it’s peaceful, too, and it supposedly improves connection with the natural world.

I like thinking about finding silence as “silencebathing.” It sounds kind of dippy, but it does feel like something is happening in my head and in my ears. I’m silencebathing as I write this, visiting a friend in a quieter city than New York. It’s shortly after dawn, and although there are some birds singing in the distance, it’s so quiet that there’s almost a ringing in my ears. It feels like I can pay better attention, although I’m not sure how true that is. What is gained when things are quieter? Personally, it does feel like I can notice smaller thoughts. Like being able to pick even the smallest flowers from a field, instead of noticing only the big ones.

How to Make Things Quieter