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WSJ: Hearing too Much in a Noisy World

re: Glenn Greenwald

Real science is never settled, and anyone who has certainty on such things is not qualified to discuss it.

This one hit home for me—my #1 stressor is the inescapable noise at my home, which most would perceive as a quiet neighborhood. I was always noise-sensitive (HSP), but after my concussion it became torture for a while*; now it’s “just” a daily stressor that makes me want to travel away from home to the mountains.

* Post-concussion for months, noise was unbearable, the visual equivalent of having someone shine a flashlight into my eyes. For up to a year, I could not tune out sounds and would be conscious of half a dozen irritating noises from all directions, such as in a grocery store. Things have greatly improved, but it’s still something that can destroy my concentration and disable me, if too loud/long.

Hearing Too Much in a Noisy World

by Nina Kraus, 2021-09-14

Even ordinary levels of background din can drown out the meaning our brains seek from sound

When the pandemic struck in March of 2020, the human world went quiet. During what some are now calling the anthropause, highways and byways emptied of cars while shops and services locked their doors for weeks and months. Using sensitive sound level analyzers, scientists from every continent confirmed a reduction in human-created sound levels, in some cities by as much as seven decibels, which translates to about one-fifth as loud as before.

...Few people realize that there are two types of dangerous noise. Everyone knows about the danger of loud sounds...

The sounds of human activity generally don’t reach that accepted threshold of “unsafe.” Most people would consider the day-to-day sounds of urban life or a bustling workplace “background noise.” We think we shrug it off and tune it out. But we are not really tuning it out so much as we are adapting our lives to a constant state of alarm.

...Chronic exposure to meaningless noise requires our brains to sustain an exhausting state of alertness and ultimately dulls our perceptions...

If you live in a city or labor in a noisy workplace, you may ace the hearing-threshold test when your ears are tested, but you are less able than your peers who are accustomed to quiet environments to detect sounds in noise or to pick up on subtle timing cues in sounds. A 2004 study in Psychophysiology of noise-exposed workers with otherwise clinically “normal” hearing found that they showed diminished responses to subtle changes in otherwise predictable acoustic patterns. They also were excessively distracted by irrelevant sounds, which interfered with their ability to perform tasks. Such weakened aural processing is exactly the sort that we associate with old age.

...Noise can have a pernicious effect not only on our hearing, but on all our senses. When there was background noise, subjects in the 2004 Psychophysiology study performed worse on visual-motor tasks, such as tracking a moving target on a computer screen with a mouse pointer. Road traffic noise has even been convincingly correlated with heart disease. Indeed, chronic noise exposure increases both the levels of stress people report and the measurable level of the stress hormone cortisol.

...Some medical scientists have grown concerned that the lifesaving medical equipment in neonatal ICUs could have the unintended consequence of funneling a jumble of potentially damaging noise into the brains of fragile newborns during their developmentally critical first few days of life... “auditory trauma” may compromise the linguistic and cognitive development of infants.

...Having our hearing always “on” is fatiguing for the brain, especially when the background noise is unimportant but unrelenting... Reading scores of children in classrooms on the noisy side of the school lagged behind those of their peers on the quiet side by up to 11 months. Mitigation efforts, including rubber rail padding and noise abatement materials in the affected classrooms, erased the learning gap.

...Another study, in 2005 in The Lancet, found that chronic exposure to aircraft noise negatively affected cognition and reading comprehension among children... according to a 2013 study in The Journal of Neuroscience, children raised in such environments often have a high level of neural noise in their brains, meaning that their auditory neurons are active even when the external world is quiet.


WIND: at my home at 5 AM the roar of the distant freeway starts. Revving engines miles away are heard at all hours (miles away), the train in Menlo Park 8 miles away is plainly audible, airplanes fly overhead regularly and are so loud they drown-out everything.

I have come to loathe many of my neighbor because of the all-day-long activities: leaf blowers, lawn mowers, shredders, septic-tank pump trucks, the unending construction jobs (never fewer than 5 within 1/2 mile), etc. Worst of all are next-door pool pumps, which run for hours and pollute my backyard with humming eletrical noise much of the day. I want to hear the birds and the wind, not some pool pump needed for the atrocity of a pool in a drought-stricken area. These neighbors of course locate their pumps as close as possible to the property line, so they have to hear it less.

Ear plugs and noise-canceling headphones you say? Then the rest of the world is cut-off, and irritation in the ears develops too. Those are non-solutions proposed by the oblivious. There is no real solution except to go elsewhere.

I do have some escape: when I travel in the mountains, I usually can sleep in places that are so quiet the ears (brain) strain to ear so much that phantom sounds can occur (low bass for me). At most it’s wind or owls or coyotes or some such.

In the past couple of years, I’ve also developed a faint hissing in my ears at most times. It seems to worsen when I’m stressed. I assume it is some form of tinnitus and I’ve long assumed it is due to nervous system damage (brain or nerves from ears), perhaps caused by my concussion or infectious trauma, not sure.

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