Have you ever wondered what silence sounds like? We’ve got used to the noise from honking cars, braking trains, people and their buzzing cellphones, loudspeaker announcements, arguments, laughter, and sirens. We are exposed to the noise of civilization even in remote places and almost around the clock. Complete silence does not exist—at least not in most parts of the world.
Noise is everywhere—it is this human-made noise that affects human health. The World Health Organization has studied the consequences of noise pollution on human health in the European Union. According to its Environmental Noise Guidelinesfor 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.”
Studies worldwide indicate that high traffic noise levels weaken the immune system and significantly increase the risk of high blood pressure and heart attacks. Human-induced noise also affects animals and their natural behavior.
“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.”
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.” In 2019, the New York Times published 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.”
From my perspective, silence contains two elements: One is the absence of noise caused by humans; the other is the absence of human movement. A quiet time — a moment when the only thing I hear is the pulse of blood in my head — is scarce these days. These moments became a luxury in my life. So far, I have experienced such moments only during long treks in Greenland.
These moments became a luxury in my life.