Noise, amplified, all around us - Hindustan Times
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Noise, amplified, all around us

ByVandana Kohli
May 23, 2024 12:52 PM IST

This article is authored by Vandana Kohli, author, filmmaker and entrepreneur.

These times are very different from those gone by. We seem thrust into unprecedented and unrelenting cycles of stress. For a world that prides itself on its progress, the prodders to our discomfort are mostly products of that very progress. Our tech and tools, in a quest to become faster, are driving us to confusion and anxiety; our attention spans are shorter than ever; our impatience levels, spiked.

Noise (Unsplash)
Noise (Unsplash)

One cause more, for progress-induced agitation, is noise.

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Noise is an unwanted, unpleasant sound, a disturbance, and we are…well, a noisy species. Our modes of transport, our machinery, mining and manufacturing, thunder across the planet. It affects us all, however much we think we may have grown accustomed to it.

In the 1960s, Gerd Jansen from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology, Germany, reportedly examined a thousand German industrial workers to study the effects of noise on them, if any. He documented significant health problems, and equilibrium disturbances among other findings. Those working in very noisy industries were more affected than those who worked in relatively less noisy sectors.

Even earlier, John B. Watson, an American psychologist, suggested that infants feel few emotions, dominant among which are love, rage and fear. Watson said that infants feel fear first, if they experience a loss of body support, and second, if they hear a sudden, loud noise. The fact that noise sparks powerful negative emotional impulses, has been corroborated by research over the years.

Since then, data on chronic exposure to noise reveals bio-chemical linkages to disturbed sleep, high blood pressure, accelerated heart rate, irritability, anger, and inflammation in the brain, veins and arteries. Noise pushes our threat buttons by default. The brain’s stress response is activated which, once in motion continually, can lead to cardiovascular problems in the same way apparently that smoking, diabetes, hypertension and obesity can cause in us. In children, it can result in impaired memory and slow learning.

These results are not for just those who work in noisy environments. In 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that exposure to noise from transportation--specifically from aircraft, trains and road vehicles--is responsible for the annual loss of over 1.5 million cumulative years of healthy life among people in Western Europe. For a country like ours, that figure would of course be higher.

If this estimate is difficult to relate to, here’s another. Research suggests that the direct and indirect social costs of noise and air pollution (through air, train and road transport) in the European Union alone, could be nearly €1 trillion, accounting for disease and premature death.

Further, the effects of noise on living beings are much more than apparent. The relentless crisscross of cars, flights, ships and tourists traumatises wildlife, both on land and in sea. A study presented in the Ocean Sciences Meeting in 2022 reports on the effects of noise on turtles from off shore construction and shipping. Scientists warn that turtles could experience loss of hearing from minutes to days. This means that the reptiles could miss out on sounds of communication in their environment warning them of approaching predators, among other cues. Similar impact of noise on marine animals such as fishes and whales have also been documented.

The fact that noise created by human activity drives wildlife into hiding was evident during the Lockdown in 2020 and 2021. While we were forced to stay at home, bears, deer, giraffes and at least 40 other terrestrial mammals around the world roamed further than usual and seemed more at ease in the absence of human presence. Otters in Chile, shy marine fish off Ecuador, pumas in California, timid jackals, shy foxes and bird species, to name a few, all emerged from hiding. Loggerhead turtles laid eggs more frequently and the big cats relaxed and mated more, across continents, as the noise abated.

But here’s the thing. It isn’t just the disturbance created by the cumulative sound of our high-speed vehicles and big industry that impact us and other life. Research presented in 2003 by W Babisch from the German Federal Environmental Agency suggested that constantly experiencing low levels of noise of 50-60 decibels even, which is as much as in a conversation, interferes with concentration, communication, and our circadian rhythms to impact sleep. That “causes annoyance, mental stress, and subsequent sympathetic and endocrine activation”, the long-term consequences of which are coronary heart disease, anxiety and depression amongst other disorders.

As I sit at an airport café waiting to board a flight, I’m struck guessing the levels of sympathetic and endocrine activation within and around me! Almost everyone in sight is talking. Two groups of young people in conversation behind me shout at each other across a two-feet table expounding their take on insurance policies. Nine people in my direct line of vision are walking or pacing in circular paths at the edge of the café, each talking on his/her phone. One of them hollers instructions into it, because he can’t clearly hear the person at the other end. Two others sitting on my right swipe their screens for a minute or two before dialing and breaking into conversation as well.

Armed with our gadgets, and the choice to connect to whoever we wish from wherever we are, we all seem to be talking, all the time. That’s a lot of talking which inevitably grows louder and louder, as people struggle to be heard over and above the existing din, thus notching it up in amplitude. That’s a lot of noise.

The world is on steroids. As we talk more to do more business and move more goods across sea, air and land, to buy and sell more across continents, impelled by design to keep our economies going and growing, faster and faster, we’ve created a human-induced cacophony, unlike any other time in history. Add to that the invisible noise from all our gadget circuitry, and the frequency and amplitude of our noise pitches peak. As other creatures on the planet run for cover, we seem unaware and locked into an amplified, agitated mode that can only vibrate across and reflect back from layers of our atmosphere as drivers to further agitation.

While we figure that out, could we consider our own levels of quiet and noise?

Do we hear the sound of the fridge door open as we put a dish away, a morning bird chirp, or the newspaper rustle when we turn a page, rather than the noise in our heads? If yes, we’re in the now.

And are we (and our children) aware of our voices with respect to the spaces we visit – a public lobby, a medical facility, a mall or a restaurant? If not, then we are drivers of the din.

And lastly, would airport and railway authorities consider offering travelers a quiet room? Not akin to an unwanted, cramped space (often set aside for smokers), but one that is simple, spacious and pleasant, with seating placed afar, natural light and a few plants. Such a space might offer respite from an ever-growing ubiquitous ruckus, and relief to a mind buzzed into a daze. It might even prod us lightly again, into quietness.

This article is authored by Vandana Kohli, author, filmmaker and entrepreneur.

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