Calming the nervous system long enough to allow the body to restore itself is a tenet of good health. Addressing the nervous system in this way is one of the principle underlying goals of massage, as I practice it, and helping all of us (myself included!) find ways to do it at home is one of the central themes of this blog. Responding to continual stimulation keeps the nervous system active, even when the body is seemingly relaxed. One such source of stimulation is auditory; the mind is constantly interpreting and processing sound. Some sound is welcome, like music, however much of what we perceive today is simply noise. We have become so accustomed to it that most of us don’t even realize how much energy we expend dealing with noise. The amount of sound humans have been exposed to during our trajectory of existence was relatively static until as recently as the last hundred years. During this period, there has been a marked uptick in the amount of sound experienced by the average person in almost any environment. Our nervous systems are not equipped to handle this much uninterrupted stimulation, so in order to allow ourselves some much needed parasympathetic nervous system activity, we need to actively provide an interruption in the sound stream.
To get a sense of the recent changes in our soundscape, we can turn to the brilliant work of Bernie Krause, musician and renowned soundscape ecologist. He explains the three components of our auditory ecosystem: geophony, biophony and anthrophony. Non-biological sounds, such as wind or ocean waves comprise the geophony of a sound environment. The biophony is provided by the non-human organisms, such as animals and insects. We humans round out the picture by adding the anthrophony, sounds which are increasingly chaotic, incoherent and LOUD. Krause has documented wild soundscapes all over the globe for almost fifty years. Some of his work has been used for film and some of it is simply for conservation purposes. Since he started doing this work, the percentage of the sound environment classified as anthrophony has increased dramatically. In his TED Talk, he explains that forty years ago, it would take him about ten hours of recording to extract one hour of usable material. Today, because of global warming, resource extraction and human noise, it takes over ONE-THOUSAND hours of recording to obtain one hour of pure material. I was astounded to hear that fully fifty percent of his archives comes from habitats so radically altered that they are altogether silent or can no longer be heard in original form. In other words, humans are creating a heck of a lot of noise (and destroying the biophony in the process)!
The effects on the animal kingdom are well documented. One of his most poignant examples of human sounds changing the ecology’s natural balance is that of the great basin spadefoot toad. These toads vocalize in a chorus that is in sync. The goal is cooperative: as the sound comes evenly from all directions, large predators can’t single out any one toad. (If only humans could work together in this way….) 6.5km away from the site where Bernie Krause was recording these amphibians was a site that became a favorite for U.S. Navy jets to perform training exercises. During one recording, there was a series of fly-bys, and the noise from the jets was so loud that it disrupted the toads’ chorus. It took the toads fully forty-five minutes to synchronize themselves and during this time two coyotes and a great horned owl were able to capitalize and prey on the vulnerable group. The more we alter the acoustic environment, the more we upset the balance of nature. The good news, however, is that, through habitat restoration and fewer flights, the toad population that was once diminishing in the 1980s is now returning to normal.
Humans must now do the same for ourselves. “Habit restoration” for us must include eliminating some of the din of everyday life. We exist in what Greg Hainge terms “the amplified maelstrom of the modern world”. His predecessor, R. Murray Schafer, warned of the “dangers of an imperialistic spread of more and larger sounds into the corner of every man’s life” way back in 1977. Forty years later his message is still the same and all the more necessary given the rise in noise pollution since his original work. The message? Listen. Listen mindfully, and eliminate some of the extraneous sounds when you can. We all spend time and energy trying to figure out ways to sleep better, to release contracted muscles and to engage in more mindful activities. All of these are ways to provide the mind and body with the most impactful form of healing: rest. Let’s add in some much needed rest for our ears! For a couple of weeks, I have turned off my air conditioning at night and slept with an overhead fan. The fan makes an almost imperceptible hum, which is nothing compared to the gale force gusts emitted by the air conditioning vents. I can physically feel myself relaxing as soon as the vents are silent. Turning off the air purifier an hour before bed also provides some welcome respite to my ears (I alternate nights so some nights I still get the most pure air possible while I sleep…it’s not a perfect system, I will admit). When I can get it quiet and dark before bed, I have recently been listening to Bernie Krause’s wild sanctuary recordings, just the 90 second clips before settling into the silence. Listen here. Want some other ideas for relieving the ears of their constant burden?
- Enjoy beautiful music, but not all of the time. (I listen to plant music for an hour in the morning, “guilty pleasures” during exercise time and soothing sounds for massage … otherwise, it’s quiet.)
- Drive without the radio on every once in a while.
- Take a hike in the greenbelt (in many spots you can no longer hear the highway half a mile in or so) – without headphones on.
- Unplug unnecessary appliances.
- Use earplugs when in noisy environments.
- Make a dedicated quiet space in your home, as far away from kitchen appliances and other sources of noise as possible.
- Use throw rugs in the home (will need to be cleaned often)
- Repair or replace noisy vents.
- Spend a few minutes each day engaged in active listening. Try to pick out each individual sound. This will help your ears recognize the sounds that need to be eliminated.
- Pay it forward and be a good neighbor – keep your music at an acceptable volume, for yourself and for others.
Lastly, most of us listen to music that is just too loud. The loudness of a sound is connected to the amplitude of the sound wave. A louder sound means the air molecules are moving with a greater amplitude and they, in turn, cause your ear drum to move with a larger amplitude. These sound waves are of a higher intensity and carry more energy per time across your sensitive eardrum. Too much energy carried too quickly across an eardrum, continually, will elicit a stress response.
My goal in writing this blog is to present simple ways we can all improve our well-being, even if they seem small. Much has been written about the constant and unrelenting stimulation modern humans face on a daily basis and its detrimental effects on well-being. The solutions to this situation are often obvious, yet the simplicity can elude us. Calming the nervous system is a good path, and resting our ears is a great first step.
Biophony and the Deep History of Sound
“The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places”, Bernie Krause, 2012
“The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World”, R. Murray Schafer, 1977
R. Murray Schafer: YouTube on Listening
“Noise Matters: Toward an Ontology of Noise”, Greg Hainge, 2013.
“Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement – EXPANDED EDITION”, Katy Bowman, 2017
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