On Noise: Room to Think

Sometimes I wonder what it must have been like for people before radios.

The radio is the originator of any personal item that can be turned on and listened to. With the invention of radio came the invention of blather, the invention of human-produced white noise.

I usually think about this when I read nineteenth century novels. The only sound beyond conversation in the houses where these stories unfold is the occasional fair lady playing piano to entertain her guests, sometimes accompanied by singing. It occurs to me that times before personal listening devices must have been very quiet times. Or if not quiet, than at least not noisy in the way the world is now.

George Eliot describes in letters the silence of the countryside retreats she would take with her partner. She often used these getaways to write. She recalls looking out of the window and writing for hours. How must it have been to write every day for weeks in complete silence, with no possibility of phone buzzing, television commercials, or music through headphones? No anticipation whatsoever of noise?

I used to love listening to music on my commute. At some point, it began to make my mind feel leaden. I started making sure to leave my headphones off for the last twenty minutes of my commute, because I found the stupor my headphones left me in made my conversation stumbly and awkward for the rest of the day. One day I forgot to bring my headphones and I haven’t listened to music while traveling since.

I noticed that after a few months of this silence, my own thoughts started to return with vividness. I was less prone to having lyrics and melodies stuck in my head. My thoughts were more active, discerning, and complex than they were before. I felt more aware of what I was thinking and more awake.

I’ve known people who can’t seem to be without noise. They must be talking. They must be listening to music. Filling the air with information. But I wonder if our critical thinking skills crave silence? As a species, we are notoriously overconfident about our ability to multitask. What kinds of insights and connections are missed when our brains can’t be left in peace? When they are constantly being asked to process an undercurrent of noise — including the kind we can’t do anything about, the sounds of civilization.

Silent contemplation is a habit more than anything now. You have to create it for yourself. The trouble is that twenty-first century silence has a lot of exceptions. Having a phone close at hand or scrolling on that phone doesn’t count. Even ambient music sometimes doesn’t count.

And we usually don’t count some of the loudest noise in the world: visual noise. We read the advertisements on the train without even noticing the brain process it requires. But it’s still taking up space in our head. These are things George Eliot’s brain never would have dealt with. Our brains are so expert at processing visual noise that it hardly feels like we’re doing anything when we gloss over the words.

I noticed the difference when I was in an rare, ad-less subway car one day. I felt noticeably calmer, quieter, cozier. It makes you wonder: would there be less agitation on the train if our brains weren’t so clogged?

It was such a marked difference I had to take a picture.

This isn’t necessarily a call for us to enforce silence on a massive scale, or to make people question how they spend their personal hours. But it’s good to be aware that the peace and quiet needed to properly reflect is something that is denied to us on a cultural level. They will never stop trying to snatch our attention and make us believe noise is normal. But until our voices are louder than theirs, we can take back our peace back privately — and silently.