Dear reader, when was the last time you experienced silence? Our 24/7/365 world is a cacophony of sound, both natural and man-made. As a result, many humans seek an escape from the seemingly endless din.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably never really experienced true silence. Also, if you’re really like me, then you’re probably a clone and you have some SERIOUS explaining to do.
Anyway, it’s true that many of us crave the blessed peace of silence – or at least, what we think is silence. Even what we refer to as a “silent” room is not truly silent. There is always noise of some kind, even at a low level, and this turns out to be a very good thing indeed.
You see, humans cannot function in true silence, that is, an environment rated at a sound level of 0 decibels or lower. Silence can be psychologically damaging to the human creature – even more damaging than a remake of “Encino Man,” if such a thing can be believed.
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Orfield Laboratory houses something called an “anechoic chamber,” a room so soundproof it’s in the Guinness Book of World Records as being “really hard to spell.” No seriously, it’s listed there as the “quietest place on Earth.”
The chamber has a decibel rating of -9.4 dBA, which is like an MBA, only cooler. The room itself is comprised of one meter thick fibreglass acoustic wedges, double walls of insulated steel and 30.5 centimetre thick concrete, making it 99.99% sound absorbent. Tests confirming this were conducted using the sound of trees falling in the forest with no one around.
Studies done in this chamber have revealed that humans subjected to such low decibel levels actually begin to hallucinate after a short time.
It’s been reported that the longest anyone has been able to endure in the room was 45 minutes. Longer than that and participants run the real risk of mental breakdown, or the sudden enjoyment of country line dancing.
Interestingly, studies have shown that nearly identical deleterious psychological effects can be generated by having otherwise healthy humans attempt to read the “Terms of Service” document included with typical consumer electronics. There is a famous case of Mr. Ernest Q. Swiftdongle Jr. of Marietta, Georgia, who made it all the way to page five of an Apple “Terms of Service” document before succumbing. Paramedics stated that what was left of his brain, “looked like rancid mayonnaise.”
Anyway, the anechoic chamber was not originally designed as a torture chamber (though the IRS has apparently shown interest as a venue for audits). The chamber was designed to study how human-shaped humans use sound to orient themselves to their environment. Even the most subtle of sounds help us navigate and make sense of our world, according to the research.
The room has also been used by manufacturers such as Harley-Davidson to develop quieter motorcycles (really), and by NASA to test how astronauts can better function in outer space, which can be thought of a REALLY BIG anechoic chamber with stars, planets, Klingons, etc.
Isn’t it funny how we all crave silence, and yet, if we actually found it, it would drive us mad? Obviously what we really want is tranquility – a break from the hideous hoo-ha we find ourselves bathed in daily, from the squawking of talking heads to the bleeps, warbles and buzzes of our electronic overlords, desperate to share with us the vital intelligence that someone, somewhere, has just posted a cat video.
The soft gurgle of a stream, the rustle of leaves in the wind, the songs of birds… these are sounds we can live with. They’re not only natural, but they seem… unobtrusive somehow, as if the sounds blend seamlessly into the peace and tranquility of natural life.
Your “La Cucaracha” ringtone? Not so much.