Writer George Prochnik says he's had a passion for silence as long as he can remember.
"I can't sit in my house without hearing air conditioners," he tells Dave Davies. "I worry about this layer of noise that's placed on top of infrastructure noise. It's made [noise] inescapable."
In his new book, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, Prochnik leaves the noisy confines of New York City and goes on a global quest to find those who still value silence. He examines the never-ending series of sounds that pervade his thoughts on a daily basis — the traffic helicopters, the leaky iPods, the neighbors who hold loud parties — and researches the scientific effects of noise on our bodies.
"There's increasing evidence that harm goes across our systems [from noise]," he says. "There's been a long association with noise and hearing loss — many times subways that haven't been maintained are already running at decibel levels that are dangerous — but there's also new studies just completed that show danger to our cardiovascular systems. Even when not awakened, blood pressure goes up and hours later, the blood pressure is still elevated."
Among the noises Prochnik investigates in In Pursuit of Silence are those deliberately added to an environment to trigger key emotions and excitement. He points to one study conducted in France that showed a clear correlation between noise levels and how much people eat and drink.
"What we know is that if you're loud at this point in our culture, it seems to signify that you're having a good time," he says. "This is the same phenomenon that we find in restaurants, which continue to get louder in many cities every year. ... People, it seems, will often not eat as much in a really loud environment. However, what they will do is drink more. ... So that sense of loss of control, of celebratory arousal, is something some restaurant spaces can benefit from."
Prochnik says that on trips to a Quaker meeting and a monastery, he learned that absolute silence doesn't exist but that quiet spaces are essential because they "can inject us with a fertile unknown: a space in which to focus and absorb experience."
"What surprised me is degree to which the monks don't associate silence with gloomy overhang," he says. "There's sense of joyfulness of turning themselves down to be conscious of greater things."
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