Noise: The Choice to Ignore the Logical Solution

Sounds surround us. Escaping them is nearly impossible, and the effects they have on us is shocking. Yet, so few people know the true toll that noise has on us. There exists a clear distinction between sound and noise. Noise is not just sound, but unnecessary sound, sound that annoys or distracts people from the things they attempt to do. While most will admit to the annoyance factor of noise, this is basically the full extent of their knowledge of its effects. However, noise can cause immense psychological and psychological destruction to the body, and no true plans exist to stop it. Noise pollution can cause severely altered sleep cycles, cardiovascular issues, hypertension, and poor task performance. The issue that plays into this lack of regulation is that most of these effects can be caused by myriad other sources. Identifying noise as the direct and only cause is practically impossible without eliminating all confounding variables. Even though noise constantly damages lives, it seems to be a minuscule issue to many because of the general lack of knowledge of the extent or source of the damage; because of this, the consequences it has are practically ignored, displaying the importance of government intervention in regulating noise pollution.

Noise is arguably one of the most important yet least regulated issues in modern society. With increases in population and city size, gone are the days of living in practical silence. Music blasts through the night, cars drive all day, subways and airplanes never cease to produce constant noises. But since no one has the ability to shut off their sense of hearing as they do with their eyes, mouth, or nose, essentially nothing controls the amount of noise constantly entering our ears. Goines and Hagler make the point that noise, “even at levels that are not harmful to hearing, is perceived subconsciously as a danger signal, even during sleep” (Goines and Hagler 2007, n.p.). The danger of noise is more than simply a signal however, as the possible ramifications it can have on the human body are immense—both physiologically and psychologically. Noise control is severely lacking in government regulation, but, unfortunately, efforts to control noise were practically dropped in the ‘80s when the federal government passed the responsibility onto state government without mandating any specific policies (Goines and Hagler 2007). Noise’s vast range of effects is nearly uncountable, but some of its specific destructive abilities provide enough reason for regulation.

Particularly known for altering sleep cycles, noise, in turn, affects productivity and day-to-day health; while studies continue to show this as a fact, hardly any governing bodies take any action to dampen the effects of noise pollution. One very common example of noise pollution changing sleep cycles is for people who live next to high noise-level areas like airports or train stations.

View an example here: (Crittenden 2012).

In these cases, the person subjected to the noise often grows “habituated” to the noise, meaning the noise no longer seems to distract them, and they learn to function with it constantly in the background. While habituation seems to be an excellent solution to unceasing noise, reality shows otherwise. Stansfeld and Matheson address this issue: “Studies on noise abatement show that, by reducing indoor noise level, the amount of REM [rapid eye movement] sleep and slow wave sleep can be increased. It thus seems that, although there may be some adaptation to sleep disturbance by noise, complete habituation does not occur” (Stansfeld & Matheson 2003, 244). While people may feel a sense of becoming used to the noises of their environment (particularly those who live near consistently loud areas), the physical harm to their body does not go away. They may fall asleep more easily, but noise can still limit REM sleep and cause hypertension. REM sleep (a deeper sleep, characterized by little muscle use and ability to dream) is key to feeling well-rested and able the next day. It seems habituation is actually more dangerous than a lack of habituation, as people believe the noise has lost its effect on them, when in reality it has not.

In my own research, using the App “Sleep Cycle,” I recorded sleep cycles with and without white noise present through the night. The semi-sinusoidal graphs display the various periods of “deep sleep” (REM sleep) and normal sleep. In the first chart, which represents sleep without white noise, I reached REM sleep four times and once partially. The second chart represents sleep in the presence of white noise. I reached REM sleep only twice fully and once partially throughout the night.  Thus the existence of white noise dramatically altered my sleep cycle. In reality, I noted that I did indeed fall asleep more easily with the presence of white noise, demonstrating the threat of habituation.

These two sleep cycles represent examples of sleep in near silence and sleep in the presence of white noise, respectively.

Noise, particularly white noise, causes a more profound effect on children than on adults by altering them in developing stages and inhibiting their full mental growth. The majority of research executed regarding white noise is based on children for two reasons: first, they generally have a stronger reaction to noise containing many frequencies or “white noise” (they fall asleep very easily in its presence), and second, white noise is far worse for children than for adults. In recent years, marketers have introduced parents to the use of white noise (created by white noise machines or phone applications), to help their infant children fall asleep more easily.

Listen a white noise machine here: (Millepassi 2013).

While this method does indeed prove to work well in most cases, doctors worry about the sound pressure associated with white noise-producers. Pediatric ear surgeon Blake Papsin grew concerned about this use of white noise machines after discovering that many of them reach sound pressures of 85 decibels (Sanders 2014). To put this into perspective, a loud hair dryer operates at a similar level, and workplaces are considered “safe” at a maximum of 85 decibels. While white noise brings about issues in young children, general noise pollution does as well. (Sanders 2014; Stansfeld and Matheson 2003). Gary Evans, in his 1992 study of the relocation of the Munich airport, showed a drastic change in long-term memory and reading comprehension ability among children in the area. The children who lived near the airport before 1992 showed a strong deficit in those fields, but after the relocation, they began to perform on average levels (World Health Organization 2011).

In reality, noise takes more of a toll on the body than the simple physiological effects mentioned already; noise psychologically impairs people far beyond common belief. R. Murray Schafer, creator of the word “soundscape” and renowned acoustic ecologist, brings about another key term to the idea of the mental effects of noise: “schizophonia.” Defined as “the split between an original sound and its electroacoustical transmission or reproduction,” (Schafer 2005, 34), this term refers to the re-creation of sound in a negative way. While many sounds today are reproduced in some new way, the modern-day re-creation of sound brings forth terror in the eyes of Schafer, as sound no longer links to its source, necessarily. Another phrase that stems from schizophonia is the CRESSON (Centre de recherché sur l’espace sonore et l’environment urbain) group’s term, “ubiquity effect,” or the “anxiety we experience in the presence of sounds whose source cannot be localized” (Johnson 2009, 181). Like schizophonia, the ubiquity effect is based upon “the uncertainty produced by a sound about its origin.” Thus it creates an issue of power between the listener and the source — the listener loses any sense of control over the source of noise, and this, in turn, causes the paranoia (Augoyard and Torgue 2005, 131). Though the ubiquity effect influences various people differently, it disturbs some to a great degree. In the worst cases, the horrendous attempt to localize the cause of the noise results in a belief that the noise is voluntarily attempting to harm the listener, in turn causing dramatically intense panic or possibly even damaging physical behavior in extreme cases. While the ubiquity effect is generally not taken to these extremities, architecture in large cities can cause episodic exposure to sounds lacking a source, allowing these issues to occur.

Noise can produce further psychological effects aside from the ubiquity effect, basically caused by a large amount of sound pressure. In a 2015 study on Pakistani traffic wardens, researchers measured psychological effects in areas of high sound pressure through interviews and quality of work checks. In general, the noise levels surrounding these traffic wardens ranged between 85 and 106 decibels, which, as mentioned before, is considered above “safe” levels for a working environment. The study produced stunning results: “Major psychological effects found in wardens were aggravated depression 58%, stress 65%, public conflict 71%, irritation and annoyance 54%, behavioral affects 59% and speech interference 56%” (Tabraiz 2015, 1). Thus, even though officials consider the noise above safe levels, strict regulation was not present and caused these massive psychological effects. It is clear that these outcomes would thoroughly inhibit a traffic warden from accurately performing his or her job and possibly result in putting the public in further danger.

In terms of general sound recognition, studies show the importance of low noise levels for developing humans. Melissa Caras and Dan Sanes of the NYU neuroscience program led an experiment on gerbils in order to determine the effect of auditory deprivation on ability to detect the presence of AM waves, a key factor of vocal communication. The gerbils used in the test were given bilateral earplugs for fifteen days, and after having the earplugs removed and returning to normal hearing thresholds, the gerbils were tested and compared to a control group. The group given earplugs for fifteen days showed a far larger detection threshold for AM waves compared to those in the same-age control group. However, at an older age, the earplug use showed hardly any difference. The test was then conducted on juvenile gerbils. In this case, it was made clear that the juvenile age was a far more crucial period for developing and being able to use auditory skills. The difference in the earplug group and the control group was far larger than the first group tested. In comparison to humans, this age period most nearly represents up until late toddlerhood (Caras and Sanes 2015).

Building on the concept of noise pollution, the government, according to accounts from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has failed to create funding for any legitimate regulation of noise pollution, particularly in terms of transportation. In a report in 1977, the EPA stressed the importance of bringing noise under control, mainly for sleep, communication, and hearing loss purposes. Five years prior, in 1972, the Noise Control Act attempted to combat noise pollution unsuccessfully, as the federal government kept it low on its list of priorities (United States 1977). Eventually, as mentioned previously, the federal government passed noise control regulation to the states, where it lost any priority whatsoever. Today, thirty-eight years later, hardly any more progress has been made in terms of true government regulation of noise control.

Researchers make clear the sheer amount of harm noise causes the human body in nearly every possible way. One could argue that the ignorance related to noise and noise pollution today puts us in further danger as noises continue to increase in their dominance of our senses, and we unknowingly or knowingly acquiesce. But the general population does not think of noise as something this capable of harm, and that is where the issue truly presents itself. Other issues, even issues that are far more difficult to solve, gain priority for reasons unknown. Noise, even with its surprisingly destructive ability, does not hold the power that other incurable diseases and world issues have. A solution exists, yet few feel the need to implement this remedy. Why? Perhaps it can be broken down into issues of human psychology. Why do humans feel the need to report every instance of a shark attack when vending machines account for more human deaths every year? Some issues simply gain the attraction of the media, the government, and the rest of society while others do not. However, when people spread awareness on subjects like this, sometimes an answer appears.

While researches have studied and measured the vast range of effects of noise pollution in nearly all cases, noise still continues to cause immense issues for people. Little has been done to limit noise, and little has been done to spread awareness of the matter. Goines and Hagler compare modern noise pollution to the issue of tobacco in recent years. Even after the consensus that tobacco was an incredibly dangerous product to consume or be around, it took decades for any progress to be made in seriously regulating it (Goines & Hagler). Noise pollution presents a similar issue—all studies show the immediate danger of noise on many scales, yet no action is being taken to control it. One possible reason for this lack of regulation is a lack of complaints; those who complain about noise generally refer to “noisy neighbors” or something similar, not general noise pollution (LaBelle 2010). Therefore, the government must take responsibility in regulating it just as they do with tobacco products. It seems perplexing that researchers have put so much effort into this field with very little to show as an end result. Noise in all its forms directly affects nearly every human being in some way. The answer to this question already exists, but, at this point in time, has not been implemented because of a lack of awareness. How long will this take? As population continues to rise and cities become more populated, noise’s toll on humans will rise with it. Perhaps then, when the effects present a clear, recognizable threat to all, will the government and the rest of society take a reasonable and responsible step forward.

Works Cited

Augoyard, Jean-Francois, and Henry Torgue. 2006. Sonic Experience: A Guide to Everyday Sounds. London: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 130-140.

Caras, Melissa L. and Dan H. Sanes. 2015. “Sustained Perceptual Deficits from Transient Sensory Deprivation.” The Journal of Neuroscience: The Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience. 35 (30): 10831-42.

Crittenden, Peter. 2012. Living Near an Airport. YouTube video, 0:17.

Goines, Lisa, and Louis Hagler. 2007. “Noise pollution: A modern plague.” The Southern Medical Journal. 100 (3):287-94.

Johnson, Bruce. 2009. “Low-Frequency Noise and Urban Space.” Popular Music History. 4 (2): 177-95.

LaBelle, Brandon. 2010. Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life. London: Continuum International Publishing. 45-84.

Millepassi. 2013. The Virtual Fan Sleep Music White Noise 2 Hrs Babies Stop Crying. YouTube video, 1:57:05.

Sanders, Laura. 2014. “Should You Hush That White Noise?” Science News, March 3.

Schafer, R. Murray. The Music of the Environment. 34-35. New York: The Continuum International, 2005.

Stansfeld, Stephen A. and Mark P. Matheson. 2003. “Noise pollution: Non-Auditory Effects on Health.” British Medical Bulletin. 68 (1): 243-57.

Tabraiz, Shamas, Saeed Ahmad, Iffat Shehzadi, and Muhammad Bilal Asif. 2015. “Study of Physio-Psychological Effects on Traffic Wardens due to Traffic Noise Pollution; Exposure-Effect Relation.” Journal of Environmental Health Science and Engineering. 13 (April 16): 30.

United States. 1977. Noise Pollution: Federal Program to Control it Has Been Slow and Ineffective, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Transportation: Report to the Congress. Washington: U.S. General Accounting Office.

World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe. 2011. Burden of Disease from Environmental Noise: Quantification of Healthy Life Years Lost in Europe. Fritschi, Lin et al., eds. Copenhagen, Denmark; Brussels, Belgium: JRC European Commission.

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