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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DAVE DAVIE, host:
If you live or work in a city, you may have noticed and gotten sick of all the noise in our lives: sirens, bus engines, jackhammers, booming music in the car next to us and deafening racket in bars and restaurants, not to mention all the people yelling on the street while we're trying to sleep or barking into their cell phones as if there's nobody else around.
Our next guest, writer George Prochnik, says there's plenty of evidence that noise can be harmful, as well as annoying, with studies pointing to hearing loss and even risks of higher blood pressure and cardiovascular problems.
His new book is a study of noise in the modern world and an exploration of the benefits of silence. George Prochnik has written for the New York Times, the Boston Globe and other publications. His new book is called "In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise."
Well, George Prochnik, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, one of the interesting observations that you come across in looking into the physiology of hearing, is that in the animal world, their auditory systems are designed to magnify very faint sounds to allow them to, you know, either avoid predators or find food, and that we as, you know, more evolved species of the animal kingdoms share some of that. And that's why, when we're turning up our iPods or stereos, we're damaging our hearing because evolution has made our ears magnify that so much.
Mr. GEORGE PROCHNIK (Author, "In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise"): It's made our ears magnify sound 100-fold from the source. So in the vast majority of cases, when we speak of hearing damage, what we're really talking about is damage to those amplifiers.
We depended upon our hearing to navigate a very, very dangerous environment, and therefore, you wanted it to be as acute as possible, and there are not very many, as one evolutionary psychologist said to me, there are not really very many loud noises in nature.
There's thunder, and then there are those brief periods of mating season, when animals will vocalize intensely, but most of the time, you're trying to creep around quietly because you're either trying to kill something or not be killed.
And we, I think, have completely reversed the equation from what the evolutionary set-up was that established our hearing parameters. Whereas we now have almost everything amplified as loud as possible in order to make ourselves heard in a very, very noisy world, and it simply isn't what the auditory apparatus evolved to cope with.
DAVIES: Well, one of the things you did as you were doing your research, was to look into those who deliberately make noise. There are a lot of commercial reasons for people deliberating adding noise to our environment, and that was sort of an interesting part of it.
I mean, for example, shopping, I mean, particularly shopping aimed at young people, what did you find?
Mr. PROCHNIK: Right, well, I work not too far away from an Abercrombie & Fitch store, and I would hear the music booming out, and I would wonder what it was that was appealing to all the people, enough that they would want to be in an environment, spending a lot of time, which was often at truly eardrum-shattering levels of volume.
So what I really found as I began spending time in some of these loud stories and speaking with the people who designed the sound for them, is that there was a very, very careful, strategic effort to zero in on key emotions and on key triggers of excitement.
And noise, even if we don't like to even if we don't like to admit it, even if we don't like noise, is a very powerful, very brutal source of real energy, and in some of the loudest stores like Abercrombie & Fitch, this is very obviously being exploited to create a sense of party, to create a sense of thrill, just in being in this space.
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, and it's a fun place to be, and this is the same phenomenon that we find in restaurants, which continue to get louder in many cities every year, and many people find this unbearable, but many people that a restaurant is dead unless it has that noise level.
DAVIES: Is there scientific evidence about the effects of noise or sound or music on food and alcohol consumption?
Mr. PROCHNIK: Well, there is, and it's not completely, I think, what all restaurateurs want to hear, and this is one of the interesting things, that the noise continues to turn up, even though the evidence for what effect this has on dining habits is not conclusive.
People, it seems, will often not eat as much in a really loud environment. However, what they will do is drink more. And this was shown in a rigorous study that happened in France last year, where they looked at rate of alcohol consumption directly tied to increasing volumes in the bar. And the louder the noise got, the more drinks people put back - by the minute.
So that sense of loss of also of control, of sort of celebratory arousal, is something that some restaurant spaces can benefit from.
DAVIES: You also write in the book how the European Union has mandated measurement of noise and noise controls, which haven't really happened yet, kind of raising the question whether as whether government's ever going to really make a serious impact on, at least, external noise.
The other approach, of course, is soundproofing, that you can try and control your own environment, and there's a growing industry there. What's new in the world of soundproofing that you discovered?
Mr. PROCHNIK: Well, what I discovered, if you want to block off your own space from noise, and if you have the money, there are an enormous array of new technologies that you can take advantage of. And again, as long as you have the financial resources, you can make yourself a pretty quiet fortress.
There are all sorts of new window treatments that cut sound dramatically. There's something called Green Glue, which looks a lot like something if you know the Dr. Seuss book on" Bartholomew and the Oobleck," it looks like a big, green, gooey, globby stuff that you can squeeze into just about any crack, and it just eats up the sound waves.
There are all sorts of quiet concretes. There's quiet steel. There is an amazing explosion of explosion perhaps not quite the right word but an amazing proliferation of new technologies to soundproof private space.
But what I worry about is that these are not being shared across our society so that there's no enhancement of our general investment in silence, and these technologies, I think, need for them to have a real resonance in our culture. What we need to do is find ways of sharing them with disadvantaged communities, in neighborhood that often very, very loud that don't know about these solutions and that certainly don't have the means to acquire them.
DAVIES: What were some of the wackier ideas in soundproofing that you came across?
Mr. PROCHNIK: Well, the most radical idea, I think, is this notion of an invisibility cloak that's being worked on, involving these little sonic crystals that they're going to be able to somehow weave together and drape over a small space or over a noise source, and actually, it will absorb all sound.
In theory, you will be acoustically invisible. I think that's the most extreme example of what's being done.
DAVIES: There was the silence machine? This sounded really wild.
Mr. PROCHNIK: I'm sorry. Yeah, right. There's also there's also a machine that can be programmed to shoot a wave of sound that's exactly counter to the noise source so that the two cancel each other out. And there actually has been an effort to not only build but to start marketing these silence blasters that you could then, in theory, aim at whatever noise source was torturing you and blast it with a beam that canceled the ability of the wave to reach you.
DAVIES: So it could be an idling bus or your mother-in-law?
Mr. PROCHNIK: Or someone's cell phone - exactly.
DAVIES: So it seems that you've concluded that government isn't going to get us to shut up. So what do we do?
Mr. PROCHNIK: Well, one thing I think that we can look towards with great hope is the efforts being made today by some of the creative urban planners working in this field called soundscaping, which really can mean anything that people want.
But Soundscaping, at its best, is an effort to perhaps uncover iconic sounds of a neighborhood by stripping away a few layers of noise - diverting traffic from one street, closing up a series of gaps in building walls, maybe reflecting sound from a fountain into a larger area.
There are ways that we can create perceptions of silence even in environments that are not actually quiet, and there are all sorts of interesting interplays here between our senses. So that, for example, it's been found that if you use noise barriers that are aesthetic, along a highway - visually aesthetic - that people's perception of the noise level that they're hearing drops by somewhere between five and 10 decibels, closer to 10, actually a quite impressive amount.
In the same way, it's been discovered that in areas that have fairly large volumes of road traffic noise, if you can find ways to break up that noise at all with natural sounds bird songs, wind in foliage, maybe some form of falling water that the perception of the overall noise drops, even though those natural sounds actually add to the decibel level.
So I felt great excitement about ways that we could work together as a society to build more silent spaces, which would not be just our own little cloistered-off fortress - a soundproofed fortress - but would be accessible to communities that haven't had experience of silence, sometimes for a generation, any experiences to speak of; and who therefore didn't understand why they should turn down whatever sources of electronic noise they were used to.
DAVIES: And what about refuges, I mean, like community parks, you know; places where you can just sit on a bench and just hear the birds?
Mr. PROCHNIK: I think these are essential, and really what I advocate is that we make more of these. You can make parks in extraordinarily small spaces that have extraordinarily large resonance over an urban grid.
The experiment that really began in a serious way in New York in the late 1960s was something called pocket parks, where vacant lots were taken over by landscape designers and planted in beautiful ways and set with some kind of a waster fall, have proven lasting oases of enormous consequence and enormous value to the city.
I think what we really need to do is to find ways of breaking up our experience of incessant noise with things like these small parks that are not a massive financial investment, but that can be so important to people to give them a sense of escape.
Even if we live in a loud neighborhood, studies have shown that when there is, for example, a quiet side on the rear of buildings that people feel they can get to without too much effort, the annoyance level of the noise on the front of the buildings drops tremendously.
We have now a situation where many, many people feel besieged almost constantly by noise. And I don't think this has to be like this. I think we can work with that problem. We can make more refuges, and they can be modest and still have a real effect. And maybe if we experience enough of these as a society, we'll be stimulated to create more of them, and more people will go off on their own personal pursuits of silence, as well.
DAVIES: Well, George Prochnik, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. PROCHNIK: Thank you very much for having me on the show.
DAVIES: George Prochnik's book is called "In Pursuit of Silence." You can read the first chapter at our Web site, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, John Powers on the impact of the groundbreaking drama "Twin Peaks," which turns 20 years old today. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.