Are barking dogs, roaring traffic and the din of the workplace driving you crazy? There’s a good reason why we have a hard time escaping the noise around us (and you probably won’t like it).
It’s every airline passenger’s nightmare, and one we’ve all experienced. The shrieking child two rows back.
Pity the poor parents; they try everything but with no luck. The meltdown persists. Escape is impossible. You and 100-plus other captive passengers reach your breaking point. Nerves fray. Tempers flare.
Honking horns, barking dogs and other auditory assaults are among the biggest stressors we face every day. Our inability to control the racket only adds to our stress levels, sending our blood pressure soaring and souring our mood. Searching for some peace and quiet at work? Good luck. Noise is the number-one productivity killer in the workplace.
All of which begs the question: Why is it so difficult to get relief from the cacophony that seemingly follows us everywhere?
The answer is as simple as it is unsettling: We aren’t supposed to – at least in the evolutionary sense.
Eyelids, But No Earlids?
Hearing is among the most powerful of our five senses. For thousands of years, our very survival depended on having a keenly developed sense of it. Finely tuned ears alerted our primitive ancestors to danger, enabling them to fend off foes or flee creatures stalking them in search of a tasty meal.
This sense is so intertwined with our well-being that when listening intently we possess little surplus cognitive capacity to do much else. In fact, studies show that humans are only able to process 1.6 sensory inputs at the same time. If our full attention – the 1.0 — is dedicated to listening, that leaves only .6 for our remaining senses. That explains why we can’t listen to a conversation while at the same time reading a book and expect to retain equal parts of both. One of the two activities will naturally predominate over the other.
Another sign that our survival depends on not tuning out noise? We were born with wonderful creations known as eyelids, which enable us to avoid seeing things that are unpleasant. But we lack earlids, which makes shutting off our ears virtually impossible. So it’s pretty clear: as humans we are supposed to hear noise and then, when necessary, get away from it.
But that doesn’t mean we have to enjoy it.
To be sure, not all noise is a bad thing. The sweet singing of songbirds has a relaxing effect on us. Some studies show that while noise hinders us from performing complex tasks, the right soundtrack can often improve our performance of simple ones.
Taking a Flight of Fancy
As humans, we’ve come up with all kinds of creative ways to avoid disturbing noises — enabling us to earn a living, complete our everyday tasks and, of course, preserve our sanity.
Our first and most primal instinct is to flee the offending racket. And while that strategy can be plenty effective at times, it isn’t always practical, like when we’re working. Plus even if we can relocate, who’s to say we won’t be distracted by a different, perhaps even more unpleasant noise?
Alternatively, we tune out the noise using noise-cancelling technologies or good old fashioned earplugs. The solution may be crude, but it offers at least some relief.
Another option, and the one that’s perhaps most popular, is to seek refuge by creating an alternative soundscape that’s more to our liking. Essentially we drown out the din with something more pleasant, usually music. Plug in our earbuds or turn up the speakers and dial up the Mozart, Stones, RunDMC or whatever playlist suits our fancy at the moment.
More recently, podcasts and audiobooks have become vital parts of our personal soundscapes. They entertain and inform while enabling us to escape the noise that envelops us.
And if all else fails in our quest for quiet, perhaps the only solution is to try to relax, tune it out and remember one thing: we weren’t really supposed to avoid noise in the first place.