Sitting in silence – We haven’t evolved to deal with noise

I spend a lot of time sitting in silence looking at my kitchen wall. I love it. Not the wall, the silence. It’s relaxing and clarifying, and it gives me the opportunity to contemplate the big stuff.

After years living in Glasgow with noisy neighbours, Orange Marches, shouty football fans and constant traffic, and playing in bands, working with power tools, clubbing, pubbing and perpetually listening to loud music, I’d had enough commotion. I’ve since learned to treasure silence. At home in Hoswick, apart from conversation with visitors, playing an instrument or ‘actively’ listening to music, my life is quiet.

It’s only for the past few hundred years that humans have had to put up with the perpetual background of traffic, TVs and radios, multi-storey living, the background hum of domestic appliances, assorted beeps of electronic devices….. this list of noise sources is long, as is the list of linked negative health consequences. It includes an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, stress, coronary heart disease, cognitive impairment, fatigue, and behavioural issues in children.

A 2011 World Health Organization report referred to noise pollution as a “modern plague,” and that “there is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population.” They estimated that at least one million healthy years of life are lost each year in Western Europe due to noise pollution.

We haven’t evolved to deal with noise. Our hearing systems developed to scan our surroundings for danger, and noise can trigger the release of stress hormones readying us for a fight or flight response. Our poor old brains spend a lot of time and energy trying to decide which sounds to pay attention to. Was that a Sabre Tooth Tiger or a loud TV advert? And unlike our eyes, our lugs don’t close when we sleep. Our brains monitor background noise levels ready to wake us if something unexpected is picked up. We can never switch off our aural network.

But luckily, Shetland is a relatively quiet place free from Sabre-Tooth Tigers, and the benefits of solitude are never far away. So switch noisy stuff off or get out into the country. It helps relieve stress and tension, increases concentration levels, encourages neuron regeneration in the brain, and helps promote creative thinking. Maybe I’m getting old, but that’s a much better proposition than having Radio 1 on in the background.

I recall coming home from work when living in Glasgow to find Birsey, my flatmate, sitting in the twilight silence of the living room looking into the middle distance. When I asked him what he was doing, without moving he responded, “relaxing”. A profound reply.