“My friend Lowell has moderately severe Tourette’s syndrome,” wrote neurologist Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015, in his book Everything in Its Place. In Lowell’s usually busy city environment, he had hundreds of tics and verbal ejaculations each day—grunting, jumping, and touching things compulsively. Sacks was amazed one day when he and Lowell were hiking in a desert to realize that Lowell’s tics had disappeared entirely. “The remoteness and uncrowdedness of the scene, combined with some ineffable calming effect of nature, served to defuse his ticcing, to ‘normalize’ his neurological state, at least for a time,” explains Sacks about the experience he had with his friend.
Silence is the absence of sound and movement. Noise is the unwanted, heard sound that can lead to disturbances, annoyances, impairments, or damage. For me, silence is a moment with no human-made noise. A waterfall in the distance makes a rushing noise, but I understand it as silence. The same is true for the cry of an animal or distant thunder from a storm zone. The airplane above me is noise, even if I can’t hear it. It is a disturbing element.
I realized what silence means to me during a first trekking tour in Greenland, when my wife and I were completely alone for several weeks with our backpacks and a tent. There was nothing: no streets, no houses, no people, and no cellphone network —nothing but an empty landscape, sometimes an animal, smaller and bigger lakes, fjords with icebergs and, in the background, the inland ice. Since then, we have spent every summer in the Arctic.
In 1654, Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician, wrote, “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” In 1905, Nobel Prize-winning bacteriologist Robert Koch said, “the day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague.” Between the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War, philosopher Max Picard wrote, “nothing has changed the nature of man as much as the loss of silence.” And in 2019theNew York Timespublished an article that added a new element: “much of the modern-day noise that people wish to escape comes not from loud sounds or grating talk alone, but from endless distractions.”
The plague described by Koch grew over a long period, so slowly that I didn’t notice the change. Today, we’ve got used to the noise from honking cars, braking trains, aircraft taking off, people and their buzzing cellphones, loudspeaker announcements, arguments, laughter, and sirens. Almost around the clock, we are exposed to the noise of civilization, even in remote places.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has studied the consequences of noise pollution on human health in the European Union. According to its Environmental Noise Guidelines for the European Region, “at least 100 million people in the European Union are affected by road traffic noise, and in western Europe, at least 1.6 million healthy years of life are lost year by year as a result of road traffic.” According to the WHO’s follow-up paper Burden of Disease from Environmental Noise, “this number is the sum of the loss of 61 000 healthy years for ischaemic heart disease, 45 000 years for cognitive impairment of children, 903 000 years for sleep disturbance, 22 000 years for tinnitus and 654 000 years for annoyance.” The WHO figures show what Picard meant in the 1950s.
I witnessed a steppe fire for the first time in my life in 2017. It was on a journey in the Arctic, 300 miles north of the polar circle. At first I did not believe what I saw, but an Inuit on board explained what was happening —the dry ground was burning, and dense smoke blocked the view to inland ice at the back. Try to imagine, a steppe fire in Greenland! However, the climate crisis is not our only problem. At the beginning of 2019, the Doomsday Clock was set back to two minutes before midnight: “Humanity faces two simultaneous existential threats, either of which would be cause for extreme concern and immediate attention: climate change and nuclear weapons,” explained the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists of its decision.
“Noise is not the most important problem in the world,” wrote Garret Keizer in his book The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want. His conclusion: noise is a weak issue because it affects the weak. He asks his readers to make a list of the people most likely to be affected by loud noises. According to him, “your list will include children, the elderly, the physically ill, racial minorities, neurological minorities, the poor, laborers, prisoners, or simply a human being of any description who happens to have less sound-emitting equipment than the person living next to her.”
I found a statement by Elaine N. Aron, a scientist living in Mill Valley, California. “It’s not the same,” she said, “when we determine the music and its volume like when a neighbor plays music through an open window. If we asked the neighbor to throttle down the volume and we thought he didn’t respect our wish, the whole thing would work like an enemy attack.” A stimulus —such as music —annoys us if we cannot control it. But as long as we can control the stimulus, it encourages us. It doesn’t if we don’t have control over it.
But how to escape noise?
As an individual, it is not possible to control the noise of the daily life around me. Therefore, I have to search for silent moments. I find them while walking in a forest or climbing in the mountains. Usually, I don’t follow a trail. I look for the route through a forest or to a summit that promises silence. And I capture these moments with my camera. The time out in silence is a brain booster, a tech break – a luxury. It is quite possible that this is an escape from reality and a reaction to excessive demands, but for me noise is a troublemaker that reduces the quality of life and work. If you look for scientific research that supports this statement, answers on the Internet are only a few clicks away, for example from David Strayer.
David Strayer, a psychologist at the University of Utah, deals among others with the human brain’s attention functions and the limits of multitasking. He combines his research with brain recovery. In a National Geographicarticle, he explained the “Three-Day Effect”: The brain recovers best offline during a three-day period spent out in the wilderness. “Our brains aren’t tireless three-pound machines; they’re easily fatigued. When we slow down, stop the busywork, and take in beautiful natural surroundings, not only do we feel restored, but our mental performance improves too.” Every April, he takes his advanced psych class out into the wild. The use of any phone equipment is discouraged. During these field trips, he tries to show his students the effect that nature has on the functions of the brain. After the trip, they usually perform 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks than before they started their outdoor-adventure.
During the days outdoors, Strayer measures the brain waves of his students with a portable electroencephalography (EEG) machine. Based on my non-scientific experiences, I agree with the conclusions he draws from his data. I feel best when everything I need in my life fits in my backpack.