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The power of silence in a deafening world

Why there’s more noise, and more kinds of it — and why it might be ruining our focus.

Part of the July 2022 issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

In her book The Soundscape of Modernity, Emily Thompson looked to early Buddhist texts that describe how noisy life could be in a big city in South Asia circa 500 BCE. She describes “elephants, horses, chariots, drums, tabors, lutes, song, cymbals, gongs, and people crying ‘Eat ye, and drink!’” In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the deities grew so tired of the noise of humanity that they sent a great flood to wipe us all out. Just over a century ago, J. H. Girdner cataloged “The Plague of City Noises,” including horse-drawn vehicles, peddlers, musicians, animals, and bells.

If there’s such a thing as a perennial grumble, noisiness might be it.

We know; it’s cliché to muse about the loudness of life. We imagine that people have always expressed the same exasperation. And yet something right now is different from any time in known history. These days, it’s not just loud. There’s an unprecedented mass proliferation of mental stimulation.

On one level, it’s the literal, audible noise. Even if the Covid-19 quarantines brought a temporary respite from the cacophony, the trajectory of modern life seems inexorable: more cars on the roads, more planes in the skies, more whirring appliances, more buzzing and pinging gadgetry. There are louder and more ubiquitous TVs and speakers in public spaces and open-plan offices. Across Europe, an estimated 450 million people, roughly 65 percent of the population, live with noise levels that the World Health Organization deems hazardous to health.

It’s a measurable fact: The world is getting louder. Because emergency vehicles have to be loud enough to break through the surrounding din, the volume of their sirens is a good proxy for the loudness of the overall environment. The composer and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer found that a fire engine siren in 1912 reached up to 96 decibels from a distance of 11 feet, while by 1974 siren sounds hit 114 decibels at the same distance. The journalist Bianca Bosker reported in 2019 that modern fire engine sirens are louder still — 123 decibels at 10 feet. This might not sound like much of an increase, but consider this: Decibels are on a logarithmic scale, so 90 decibels is actually 10 times the sound pressure as 80 decibels, registering as roughly twice as loud to our ears. It’s no wonder that in big cities like New York and Rio de Janeiro, noise consistently tops residents’ complaint lists.

We can’t just think of the challenge in terms of the level of the volume. It’s often the high- and low-frequency hums of data storage centers and airports that cause damage. It has been found that these forms of auditory noise have a disproportionate impact on middle- and lower-income communities.

In an age when at least a third of Earth’s natural ecosystems have gone quiet to the point of “aural extinction,” all kinds of sounds — mechanical, digital, human — have been amplified.

There’s a second kind of noise that is ascendant: informational noise. In 2010, Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, made a striking estimate: “Every two days we now create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003.” While the tech mogul was mostly musing about the exponential growth of online content, he hit on a fundamental fact about the trajectory of human history: There is more and more mental stuff competing for your attention. The Radicati Group, a technology research firm, estimates that 128 billion business emails were sent every single day in 2019, with the average business user contending with 126 messages a day. According to the most recent data, people in the United States take in five times as much information as they did in 1986.

Can we handle this much information? The leading experts in the science of human attention say no.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chik·sent·mee·hai), the psychologist who first wrote about the psychological concept of flow, summarizes the shortcomings of our everyday attentional capacities. Csikszentmihalyi estimates that when a person speaks, we need to process about 60 bits of information per second to understand what that person is saying. This includes interpreting sounds and retrieving memories related to the words that you’re hearing. Of course, we often add more to our informational loads — like checking the time for our next appointment or thinking about our shopping list for dinner — but cognitive scientists calculate that we’ll almost always hit an upper limit of around 126 bits per second (give or take a bit here and there). We’re surrounded by billions of fellow human beings on Earth, yet, as Csikszentmihalyi points out, “we cannot understand more than one of them at a time.”

There’s no question the growing amount of information in the world brings many blessings. We’re grateful for digital contact with faraway loved ones, remote learning and work opportunities, streaming movies, and all the other bounty that the mighty interwebs bestow upon humanity. But we have to remember this: The data is increasing, and our ability to process it is not. Fifty years ago, the scholar Herbert Simon put it plainly: “What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

This points us to the third category of noise: internal noise. With so much stimulus consuming our attention, it’s harder to find silence inside our consciousness. All the noise outside can amplify the intensity of what’s going on inside us. With the increased frequency of incoming emails, texts, instant messages, and social media notifications comes an increased expectation of being always on — ready to read, react, and respond. This noise makes claims on our consciousness. It colonizes pristine attention. It makes it harder to focus on what’s in front of us, to manage our mind’s impulses, to notice, to appreciate, and to preserve open space: the space of silence.

Even in the era of sophisticated neuroimaging technologies, it’s tough to quantitatively measure the levels of internal noise across humanity. Yet it’s possible to see evidence of a problem through proxies: distraction, increased levels of stress, worry, and self-reported difficulty concentrating.

In our interviews with academic psychologists, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists, we often heard them talk about anxiety as a proxy indicator of internal noise levels. While there are diverse definitions of anxiety, most include elements of not only fear and uncertainty but also internal chatter. In a 2018 study of 1,000 US adults, the American Psychological Association found that 39 percent of Americans reported being more anxious than they were the year prior, and another 39 percent reported the same amount of anxiety as the year before. That’s more than three-quarters of the population reporting at least some level of anxiety. And that was before Covid-19. Pandemic-era studies from China and the UK show a rapid deterioration in their citizens’ mental health. A US survey conducted during the lockdowns of April 2020 found 13.6 percent of adult respondents reporting “severe psychological distress” — a 250 percent increase relative to 2018.

Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and a leading expert on the science of internal dialogue, defines “chatter” as “the cyclical negative thoughts and emotions that turn our singular capacity for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing.” Negative self-talk, like rumination about the past and worry for the future, can be merciless, even debilitating. Yet it’s only one aspect of the internal soundscape. Whether its message is negative, positive, or neutral, modern internal dialogue is high velocity and high volume. As Kross puts it, “The voice in your head is a very fast talker.” Based on findings that “inner speech” is condensed to a rate of about four thousand words per minute — 10 times the speed of expressed speech — Kross estimates that most of us in modern times have to listen to something like 320 State of the Union addresses’ worth of inner monologue on any given day.

We don’t use the word “noise” lightly.

There’s a common element to the three kinds of noise in our auditory soundscapes, in the informational realms, and in our own heads that makes them distinct from what we might call sound, data, or thought more generally. Noise, in two words, is “unwanted distraction.”

The neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and the psychologist Larry Rosen have a useful way of defining what’s happening when we encounter noise. They call it “goal interference.” It’s when you find focused attention, even to simple tasks, to be impossible due to nonstop banter in your open-plan office. It’s when the jingle of a Twitter notification commandeers your attention just as a friend is sharing some difficult personal news. It’s when we “replay” an unresolved conflict during a priceless moment, like while watching your daughter in the role of Cyclops in her first school play. These are individual, momentary experiences of auditory, informational, or internal noise. But taken together, they amount to more than a nuisance. Their cumulative impact can determine the quality of our consciousness, how we think and feel. All the noise can interfere with what might be our biggest goal of all: to consciously choose how we spend our time on this planet.

We’re mindful that the word “goal” might imply a focus on productivity. But what we mean here is “goal” in the big sense: not just completing to-do lists and résumé builders but reaching a long-range destination by the position of the North Star. What do you really want? What does it mean to live your life in line with what you value and what you believe to be true? What’s interfering with your ability to focus on doing so?

Understanding and realizing our goals, in this sense, requires the reduction of noise. It starts with the ordinary day-to-day work of managing the noise. This kind of clarity also requires time and space for cultivating immersive silence.

It’s not just possible or preferable to get beyond the interference. Doing so is one of the most important commitments we make to ourselves and to those around us. Transcending the noise that distorts our true perceptions and intentions is a deeply personal pursuit, but it has social, economic, ethical, and political implications, too.

Way back in the 17th century, the philosopher and polymath Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” We have to be able to transcend the noise — to withstand and even appreciate naked reality without all the commentary and entertainment and decoration — if we are to perceive what matters. We have to do this if we want to repair our relationships with nature and our relationships with one another.

Decades before the words “attention economy” entered the popular lexicon, a Swiss contemplative named Max Picard was thinking about a question: Why don’t we seriously weigh the costs and benefits of all the noise we generate? “Silence,” Picard wrote, “is the only phenomenon today that is ‘useless.’ It does not fit into the world of profit and utility; it simply is. It seems to have no other purpose; it cannot be exploited.” Picard wrote that there’s actually more “help and healing” in silence than in all the “useful things” in the world. “It makes things whole again, by taking them back from the world of dissipation into the world of wholeness.” He concluded, “It gives things something of its own holy uselessness; for that is what silence itself is: holy uselessness.”

From the book Golden by Justin Zorn and Leigh Marz. Copyright © 2022 by Justin Zorn and Leigh Marz. Published by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

Justin Talbot Zorn is a Harvard- and Oxford-trained specialist in the economics and psychology of human thriving. He has served as both a strategist and a meditation teacher in the US Congress.

Leigh Marz is a collaboration and leadership coach for major universities, corporations, and federal agencies.

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