Increasing Noise and Less Silence Could Be Causing Unconscious Stress

Jul 25, 2014

The Wonder Boys of "I Wonder PGH," Ellis Robinson and Daniel Tkacik.
Credit Marcus Charleston / WESA

From annoying ringtones to everyday noise pollution, it seems like our world is getting noisier. The Wonder Boys, Ellis Robinson and Daniel Tkacik of “I Wonder PGH,” went in search of an answer. Their findings are revealed in a thrilling installment of the Mysteries of Pittsburgh. They wondered, was it this hard to find silent spaces 50 or even 100 years ago?

Robinson and Tkacik spoke with author George Prochnik, who answered this question with the research he has done for his latest book, The Pursuit of Silence.

“It can be difficult to make the argument that things are noisier in the sense that everywhere there are higher volumes today than there were in the past. At the same time, there’s not necessarily more noise everywhere, there’s less silence.”

One of the main questions regarding noise pollution and constant sound is, how is it actually affecting our health? Prochnik says that chronic noise leads to stress in the first place. He says it stems from mammalian hearing in our ancestors, which alerted them to possible threats.

“For the same reason that our ancestors needed to hear every sound in our environment, we also respond to sounds, loud sounds in particular, as potential threats. For example, when a siren goes by, although we might be completely psychological indifferent to that, our bodies don’t even learn that that siren isn’t coming for us. We respond with all sorts of stress hormones, ect, even to sounds that we don’t pay any attention to at all, if they sound like potential threats.”

So if you’re feeling stressed out, these sounds may be bothering you and you don’t even know it. Robinson and Tkacik recommend blocking out all sounds, including background noises of humming computers and air conditioning, and just relaxing in silence for awhile.