Noise Cancelling Headphones and the Illusion of Personal Space

Photo by Alice Moore on Unsplash

My wireless headphones broke several days ago. I only got sound out of one earbud at a time, a thing I had foolishly thought would no longer happen to me in the era supposedly without wired headphone fatigue. The good news was that I had them under warranty and the manufacturer was sending me a new pair. Hooray! But, what was I to do in the meantime? I have an iPhone as my primary device and it has the, frankly, stupid charging port instead of a standard headphone jack. My leftover wired noise cancelling headphones wouldn’t work without a dongle, one that had already previously broken (thus leading to the purchase of wireless noise cancelling headphones) and so I was left with one option — the non-noise cancelling headphones that came with the phone.

It was, to be glib, a bad time, you guys. I could hear everything. Mindful of the two family members who are near-deaf (“promise me you’ll take care of your ears,” my eighty five year old grandfather tells me again and again, in quiet earnestness) and the reports of millennials with a much higher rate of hearing problems, I keep my headphone volume at never more than fifty percent, or to the dead center of the play button. With regular headphones, this absolutely doesn’t do the trick. I’ve adapted to life with noise cancelling headphones, so much so that not having them entirely breaks my routine.

It seems to be a recurring issue. I buy noise cancelling headphones, they become part of my life, they inevitably break months down the line, then my stress level ratchets up in the ensuing time it takes to purchase new ones. Using regular headphones only makes me more annoyed, as what I want to hear battles with what I can. I can hear every passing car, every conversation behind me, every gust of wind. My morning Metro ride is deafening. I can’t focus in my open office plan work setting.

I, like many others in this digital age, have become accustomed to being able to carve out quiet for myself in the world around me with minimal effort. Once I lose it, I realize how vital that coping mechanism is to my every day life. But, why is that?

The Illusion of Privacy

There’s several different forms that this feeling I have while wearing my noise cancelling headphones takes. You can look at the proliferation of white noise machines, apps that play the soothing rumble of waves, and the rise of countless other such devices for more. Many more swear by yoga classes or by the quiet calm of regular silent meditation. My particular brand of calm is music, played at a sensible fifty percent volume, with noise cancelling headphones.

This search for calm is a documented phenomenon. Finding the silence in your brain brain can reduce blood pressure and help with anxiety and stress. Some studies have shown that pilots wearing noise cancelling headphones have lower fatigue and increased alertness, when an estimated up to 70% of ambient noise is cancelled out. A pilot is certainly someone who would want to cancel out loud noise, but noise cancelling headphones aren’t just for protecting your ears. The human brain has an adverse reaction to unwanted noise as well, as the Guardian gets into:

Unwanted noise can cause irritation and anger if it feels like an invasion of privacy, says Stephen Stansfeld, a Professor of Psychiatry at Queen Mary University of London who focuses on noise and health. “Having a lot of background noise when you’re doing something is tiring. Without noticing, you’re putting in a lot more effort in order to block out the noise. So when you shut it out, there’s a sense of relief.”
Getting worked up about noise can raise stress levels and leads to ill health. “But there’s no doubt that even if you’re not focused on the noise, it can still have an effect. If you’re asleep you may not wake up, but your body is still responding if you hear a loud sound,” says Stansfeld. “The body responds to noise as a stressor.”
via the Guardian

There’s also some research to suggest that the best headphones you can wear to protect your hearing in noisy environments are noise cancelling, provided you keep the volume to a reasonable level of course. For me, this can also cancel out a lot of the stressors I feel when in said noisy environments, such as my noisy open office plan. I’m able to listen to my music at about 20% volume, keep my mind on my work, even as loud meetings occur in the conference room next door. Without my noise cancelling headphones, having my volume at 50% or 60% doesn’t drown out the sound — it merely overlaps the unwanted sound, drawing my focus out of what I’m trying to do.

The Sensation of Equilibrium

I won’t deny that I am introverted. I’m not sure if you could tell by looking at all of me or by the contents of this article. Having my noise cancelling headphones is like being able to carry my own private island of personal space with me at all times, there to be retreated to if I need it. Without, I’m harsher, to myself and others.

My new headphones have already arrived and putting them back initiated a wave of relief in me like I’d just had a full body massage on the spot. My shoulders relaxed, tension left my posture, and I let go of stress. I couldn’t hear my neighbors through the wall anymore. I could hear Lorde, I could hear Zoe Keating, I could hear Janelle Monae. Quiet, if I wanted, my kind of background noise. Louder, no more than 50%, if I wanted a reset to my thoughts, lips moving along with the words as I typed.

You should always be aware of your surroundings. Don’t wear noise cancelling headphones driving or walking into traffic. Look both ways before you cross the street. But, in those moments where you feel overwhelmed by noise? I’d recommend a pair. Even if you don’t play music — back to the example earlier, I know plenty of people who just turn on a white noise app or even had those fancy battery powered noise cancelling headphones and just turn on the noise cancelling with no noise playing whatsoever — I’d recommend trying. I know enough about myself to know that I cannot work without some form of ambient noise, but the important thing for me is being able to control what kind of ambient noise I’m listening to. My headphones allow me that small sanity, that control, but it’s also all around us.

There’s a reason that stores play music while you shop. There’s a reason why most people don’t want to live on a busy road if they can avoid it.

Unlike your eyes, your ears are never off. No matter the shape your calm takes — be it music, meditation, or just quiet — please, in the words of my grandfather, be kind to your ears.