Sound is a silent killer

Environmental psychologist dr Kirsten van den Bosch (RUG) stresses the importance of silence. "I want people to realise that noise has a tremendous impact on our physical and mental wellbeing."
Leestijd 3 minuten — Wo 5 juni 2019

When adventurer Erling Kagge crossed Antarctica by himself on foot, walking straight to the South Pole for 50 days on end, without any contact with the outside world or any other human being for that matter, he experienced a unique kind of quietness. He decided to share his experiences in his book, fittingly called 'Silence: in the age of noise’. In this book he provides 33 answers to 3 questions:

1. What is silence?
2. Where is silence?
3. Why is silence more important then ever?

These three questions were at the core of the movie screening on May 10th, where we watched the documentary ‘In pursuit of silence’. I hope that you too will find answers to these questions. Especially since the answers are not unambiguous.

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

What is silence?

From studies and experiences, we know that there are broadly two types of silence:
1. Inner silence, which is studied by the field of psychology.
2. Outer (or utter) silence, which is studied by the field of acoustics, a form of physics.

I study the way people experience the sound environment around them. I believe that the perception of sound and silence is important, because people are more than decibel meters. We interpret sounds, and relate them to memories and emotions. The more research on sound I do, the more philosophical my inner dialogue becomes. One thing is clear: Sound is everywhere, it's ubiquitous and inescapable.

Silence can be found in:

  • Religion, where God can be found in silence.
  • Art, think of Marina Abramovic who sat silent for three months and experienced chaos.
  • Nature, when you think about the quietness in forests.
  • Love, where it can offer a whole versus an empty experience.
  • Science, by studying physical and psychological silence.

Silence can be many things: it can be deafening, relieving, heavy or golden. But the common ground in all these different perspectives or experiences of sound, is us humans. Sound is perceived by us and without our perception, sound is quite meaningless. Consider the well known thought experiment “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

Even though sound perception is a personal affair, just like taste in music is highly individual, there are similarities in how we process and perceive sound. People generally like the sound of birds and rain, and dislike the sound of traffic and machines.

According to the Japanese taking a 'forest bath' enjoying quietness of the woods has health benefits

Sound overload

Personally I adopt an evolutionary approach to perception of sound, since I believe that we are basically still monkeys roaming around in an urban jungle. I also believe that our modern built environments have developed far more quickly than our sensory systems, entailing that our brains are simply not up-to-date. People should realise that the first and foremost function of our auditory system is to keep us alive. Sound works as a pretty effective warning system. It is even said to be the most developed of all the fetal senses, meaning we can hear well before we can see. But nowadays, we have become better at ignoring sounds then at genuinely listening to them, simply because there are to many. But at what cost? This sensory overload of sound causes many adverse effects ranging from seemingly innocent noise annoyance to serious cardiovasculair diseases. Sound is a silent killer. The WHO has calculated that in West-Europe alone, every year, 1 million healthy life years are lost due to sound pollution.

Research also has shown the opposite: Quietness really does has restorative powers, with many physical and psychological health benefits. The Japanese even have a word for this: 'Shinrin Yoku', which means 'forest bathing'.

So there you have it: A beginning to your answers on the questions:
1. What is silence?
2. Where is silence?
3. Why is silence more important then ever?

This is the introduction dr Kirsten van den Bosch gave during Silent cinema & science: In pursuit of silence The documentary can be seen entirely on NPO Start