Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Silence and listening

I've been meaning to post on this for a while, but got sidetracked and never got to it. Still, it's pretty fascinating:
If you've been to a crowded airport, sporting event, or even a kid's birthday party lately, a little peace and quiet might sound like the perfect thing to help you kick back and relax. Just don't let things get too quiet, or you might drive yourself a wee bit insane: the anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minnesota can mute 99.99% of all sound, but visiting the silent oasis isn't as calming as you might expect. [...]

But while the super-silent oasis is a great testbed for various products, it holds a darker side: silence, it turns out, can put a great strain on the human brain. Researchers at NASA test the room's unique acoustic capabilities on humans rather than hardware. The noiselessness is used to simulate the silence of space — an environment astronauts would be well served to grow accustomed to.

What they've found is that when all outside noise is removed from an enclosure, human hearing will do its best to find something to listen to. In a room where almost 100% of sound is muted, people begin to hear things like their own heartbeat at a greatly amplified volume. As the minutes tick by in absolute quiet, the human mind begins to lose its grip, causing test subjects to hallucinate.

Read the rest here.

I found this fascinating, as I said, because too much silence really isn't that big of a problem in today's world. We have plenty of noise in our lives in the Western modern world, from the hum of heating and air conditioning systems to the whirr of appliances to the buzz and drone of electronic devices to the sounds of music or television or movies in the background to the ringtones of two or three different phones--and that's before you even begin to add in the noises of children and neighbors and pets and toys and a dozen other non-silent entities.

And then there's all the "internal" noise like blogs and Facebook and Twitter and a half-dozen incomplete online conversations to check in with throughout the day--is it any wonder that at least a couple of times a year, a few Catholic bloggers will post about how it's all too much and we need to recapture a simpler, softer, more silent way of being?

They're not entirely wrong, despite the report from the Orfield Laboratories anechoic chamber. It's just that sometimes I think that the focus is more on the desire for silence than on what silence is really for.

Take another look at that article above: when an environment is totally silent, human beings will start to slip into madness as they strain to hear something. The materialist explanation for this is probably that hearing is a survival skill, and that those who have the physical ability to hear will take the cessation of that ability poorly--our primal natures don't like the idea of dangers approaching that we can't sense through our hearing, and anxiety will result as we strain against the silence to hear the warning.

I don't think that's necessarily the whole story. I think that our physical senses point to eternal and transcendent realities as well as merely physical and material ones. I think that when, in an environment of near-total silence, we try desperately to hear, we may be listening not for something, but for Someone.

And for those of us who have rather noisy vocations, the moments of relative quiet--early morning before anyone has risen, perhaps, or late at night when everyone else is in bed already--can certainly be opportunities for us to hear ourselves think, to accomplish tasks that don't thrive amidst noise and confusion, to reconnect with a sense of calm and peace. But they can also be opportunities to listen to Him:

“Be still and know that I am God!

I am exalted among the nations,

exalted on the earth.” (Psalm 46:11)

I think the questions here are: do I spend my time complaining about a lack of peace and quiet? Do I want peace and quiet so I can use them for my own purposes? Or do I take the rare moments of quiet as a chance to listen?


Tony said...

Hmmm... Sounds like this would be perfect for enhanced interrogation.

Red Cardigan said...

Funny, Tony. I think putting someone in this room on purpose, someone who wasn't prepared (e.g., the astronauts they train in this setting), really would constitute torture.

c matt said...

I would suspect one problem is that test subjects have been conditioned for so long to expect at least some background noise, it is difficult to get a control group to accurately determine whether silence "causes" insanity. Perhaps if they tried it on some hermits.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

The point of "Be still and know that I am God" is that there is something (divine presence) to fill the silence with. Be still is a matter of removing distractions.

To truly have NOTHING to stimulate the senses or the soul would be different. C.S. Lewis puns on the phrase that God is "one without whom nothing is strong" to add that "Nothing can be very strong indeed" -- as an aid to "Our Father Below." There is an anecdote that Albert Einstein once confounded a professor who gleefully exclaimed that if God created everything, then He must have created evil, by observing that as dark is merely the absence of what we call light, and cold the absence of what we call heat, so evil is the absence of what we call God.

Beware of nothing.

Tony said...

How about tickling their feet? Is that "torture"?