02 August 2009

The absence of sound

In an amped-up, sensory driven world, we are attuned to discerning particular sounds of importance to us from an array of noises. In my own household, at this very moment, it is relatively quiet, but this quiet is actually composed of layers of sounds: traffic, wind chimes, the clothes dryer, television, chirping cicadas, and if I listen closely enough, even my dogs snoring. This combination of sounds establishes a baseline environment of calm. Any noise added to this mixture will attract my immediate attention.

But what happens in the absence of sound? Do our brains easily ramp down and become accustomed to a baseline environment that is essentially quiet?

I have trouble falling asleep with a television or radio on. But many people have trouble falling asleep without a television or radio providing some background noise. It is not white noise, but to them, it serves the same purpose. Cristy finds it difficult to fall asleep without white noise; a standard electric fan serves that purpose nicely. Natural substitutes might include steady rainfall or the roar of ocean surf. Just in case we find ourselves in a destination that is too quiet, she and I travel with a small fan.

A few weeks ago, Cristy was out of town and I was alone in the house for the first time. It did not occur to me to turn on the fan at bedtime; it is not my habit. As I was drifting to sleep, I remember thinking that the wind chimes out doors were unusually loud. Only later did I realize that I heard the wind chimes only because of the absence of the sound of that electric fan.

Last summer, after hurricane Ike, my neighborhood had no electricity for over a week, but one by one, businesses opened their doors and operated with generators. I went to the grocery store, thankful that they had a source of power and thankful that they had inventory. Unfortunately however, the power went out while I was shopping. The change of sound from lights on to lights off was startling. A moment earlier, I could not hear the sound of the wheels of my carriage or the footsteps of my fellow shoppers. But in the absence of the sound of fans and the residual hum of overhead neon lighting, these more subtle sounds leapt into the front of my awareness.

The absence of sound may not require much of a comprehension adjustment from our complex brains. Perhaps it is simply the human condition of habit that causes us to forget about the nature of true quiet in the absence of sound.

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