The Mind Never Stops

Some unsurprising news about the mind: “even when people stayed asleep, the noise of planes taking off and landing caused blood pressure spikes, increased pulse rates and set off vasoconstriction and the release of stress hormones. Worse, these harmful cardiovascular responses continued to affect individuals for many hours after they had awakened and gone on with their days.”

We may go to sleep and find rest, but our brains never stop responding to stimuli. In the service of our evolutionary struggle for survival, they never stop working. But there is also a price to pay.

As reported in The New York Times: “Dr. Wolfgang Babisch, a lead researcher in the field, went on to say, there is no physiological habituation to noise. The stress of audible assault affects us psychologically even when we don’t consciously register noise.”

Our conscious minds, on the other hand, do get habituated. We gradually stop paying attention to repeated sounds. Those of us who live in cities screen out the background noise of traffic, the underground rumbling of subways, the hubbub of sidewalk conversation. Sometimes we don’t even hear the sirens that try to cut through the normal cacophony of city life. But, Dr. Babisch, is saying, our unconscious is always alert and that always affects our psychological well-being.

And so too are our bodies, and that’s what causes stress. As George Prochnick reported in The New York Times, “Indeed, our capacity to tune out noises — a relatively recent adaptation — may itself pose a danger, since it allows us to neglect the physical damage that noise invariably wreaks.”

He cites a report of the World Health Organization that “conservatively estimates . . . Western Europeans lose more than one million healthy life years annually as a consequence of noise-related disability and disease. Among environmental hazards, only air pollution causes more damage.” (See, “I’m Thinking. Please. Be Quiet.”)

Many cities already have regulations concerning acceptable noise levels, and this new research when it is replicated and publicized will no doubt intensify the pressure to legislate noise levels more thoroughly. It is quite common to see “No Horn Blowing” signs or noise barriers erected when Interstates pass through residential communities. But what to do about airports, jackhammers, bulldozers, lawnmowers – the accumulated and now seemingly indispensible accompaniments of modern life?

People have known about the potential damage to their ears from excessive noise; they cover them up when a train screeches past them in an underground station or when they walk past a construction site. But how do you protect yourself from the physiological stress? The loss of concentration? The disruptions and distractions now built into contemporary life?

It looks as if that will be up to us as individuals. Having this research lends support to out intuitive understanding of the stress that noise forces us to cope with. But as The Times pointed out: “In American culture, we tend to regard sensitivity to noise as a sign of weakness or killjoy prudery.”

It will take a while to change that.