MOM!!! I’m FINE!! _ Too much noise?

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(thanks to Minh Pham and Unsplash for photo)

Let’s give a big shout out to Nina Kraus for her article, “Hearing Too Much in a Noisy World,” in The Wall Street Journal on Sept 11, 2021. She calls our attention to something really important and gets us to thinking about what we can do to help us and our kids!

So, you may have had times in your life when a sound suddenly stopped…you realize you hadn’t even noticed it . . . until it was gone. Like when the crickets suddenly all stop at once. Another variation might be when you spent time in the summer at your grandmother’s farm and things were so quiet it seemed odd (like NOT what you were used to in the city).

Kraus points out in her article that in the Spring of 2020, we experienced what is called an “anthropause” in sound, that is, a ceasing of sound due to something caused by humans.  I recall the quiet feeling a bit like a snow day…all the normal sounds of kids heading out to school, neighbors heading out to work…stopped. It was oddly still.

It turns out that there can actually be two big ways that sound can impact our well-being. First is one most of us know: too loud. Like working near a jet engine or playing in a heavy metal band. But another much less known issue with sound is when sound is too pervasive. It’s the racket going on around us all the time. To clarify why that’s not so good for us, understanding our brains is helpful.

Our sense of hearing is like a security service which scans our environment constantly for a possible threats. The human brain orients, alerts, or goes on defensive mode for sound especially if unpredictable sound changes. What if a wild animal was trying to sniff around you in bed at night…think of the sound and how it would set you on the defensive. Most of all, the brain alerts to figure out if there is a dangerous sound which might need attention. If we live in the midst of a barrage of sound, our brain is on “alert” all the time, working and sorting and trying to figure out whether or not to alert us for danger. All that sound can have the impact of creating a low-level stress ALL THE TIME. And, while we may not be aware of it, too much sound is exhausting to our brain.

So how might that impact our kids…or us for that matter? Research followed reading scores on kids in schools near lots of traffic and inner-city noises compared to similar kids in quieter school settings. An 11-month reading gap was observed. Once efforts were made to decrease the constant barrage of sounds at the noisy schools, reading gaps disappeared.

In essence, the brain spends a lot of energy trying to sort a constant cacophony of sound…generally decreasing or exhausting mental clarity…whether we are aware of it or not. The COVID sound-rest was an opportunity to experience how things might be different. The stillness we had last year might encourage us to revert, at least a little bit, to previous levels without so much sound-assault.

It is interesting to me that taking a sound break may correlate with the whole notion of down-time. Experts in creativity and innovation remind us that we do our best creative work when we’re just a little bored and have un-booked time. At our house, we call it “noodling around” time. You may want to talk this over with your kids…to even experiment with it a bit.

Some experiments you and your kids might want to try, then talk about are:

1. Begin by observing how much time in your day gets filled by extraneous sound (a TV left playing even when you leave the room; the radio news playing in the background even if you’re not really listening; music left on behind other more thoughtful activities…like homework; even people interrupting one another, talking over each other). Years ago, I knew I was in trouble when my kids were little because Raffi songs were playing in the car even when they weren’t with me! So, start off by just noticing sound.

2. Intentionally setting aside some time each day for silence. Notice how that feels to you. Continue the practice for several days noting if it gets easier or harder. Do you find yourself looking forward to quiet times? Do you find you feel uneasy?

3. Challenging yourself to “laser speak” by thinking of ways to make your speaking clearer, briefer and more to the point.  Think what you want to say; say it; stop. How does it feel to you? Does it change the effectiveness of what you have to say? Do your boys respond to laser speak differently than your girls?

One of the positives from the COVID events of the past year is that they have highlighted some possibilities for making things better at home. Honoring down-time and quiet, thought-filled moments might be the start of something great.

Why not challenge yourself and your kids to a quiet little experiment?