You know about noise (pollution) right?
If not, you would probably not be reading here...
Screaming neighbors. Fighting cats. Traffic. Overflying airplanes.
Or maybe there's just a specific sound that's really irritating for you. Maybe you don't like listening to Britney Spears - even at a low volume. Or perhaps you hate listening to Mozart or the Beatles.
Everyone hates certain sounds.
I'll tell all about you my "favorite" noise sources later on in this blog post.
And I'm also (too) acquainted what's happening with most noise pollution problems. The more you focus on the noise, the more irritating it gets.
I completely understand.
So what's the solution?
The first step in understanding any problem is being aware that there's something wrong in the first place.
With noise, most people assume that it's simply an annoying side issue--not a problem. And yet, noise is a societal problem. An enormous problem. In fact, noise is so omnipresent everywhere in society that it can be called "noise pollution".
Just like light pollution, air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution is another one of modern society's created side-effects that influences our health.
Before I dig into the health effects of noise and illustrate you how to deal with it, let's first try to understand how the problem originated in the first place.
I thus arrive at:
Many people think that noise only emerged at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution - which took place in the late 18th and early 19th century.
Back then, lots of labor shifted from working in agriculture to factory employment. Most industry is loud - a lot louder than traditional agricultural practices.
And in fact, there's some credence to that conclusion that truly excessive levels of noise started back then. In other words, noise levels did become very, very bad suddenly.
Noise pollution, however, also existed before the 18th century:
In ancient Greece, for example, some noisy professions such as pottery were no longer allowed to carry out their labor within the city walls. To lower noise levels in Rome, Julius Caesar prohibited chariots from racing through the streets. And in 17th century London, it was prohibited to beat your servant or wife at night due to the noise that it created.
Fortunately, times have changed for the better - at least on a social level.
Let's take modern-day Cairo, for example - one of the most noise-polluted cities in the world. During the daytime, noise levels average 90 decibels. During the night, those numbers drop to a 70-decibel average.
Decibels (dB) are a measurement for the power or energy of a sound.
The more power or energy a sound has, the louder it will appear in your ear.
Let me color your imagination:
A 70dB measurement equals a bypassing truck or vacuum cleaner. That sound level is thus continually present during the nighttime in Cairo. 90dB? A low-flying Boeing 737.
If you're out in the streets in Cairo during the day, you're thus continually experiencing the sound of a Boeing 737 flying over at some distance. In reality, the loudness of that sound is created by the accumulated sound of cars honking in the street, construction work, industrial labor - which all add up to the loudness of an airplane.
Cairo: a tranquil place to live?
Well, above 85dB you'll receive permanent damage to your hearing - at least if you don't protect yourself.
Above 40dB during the night, you'll certainly experience negative effects on sleep quality. Nowadays it's even suggested that 30dB-40dB sound levels can already negatively affect sleep quality.
40dB equals the birds singing in the morning...
Of course, you might be saying: "but Bart, if I'm inside, the noise is much less loud"
But you'll only reduce the average sound measurement readings by staying indoors with roughly 10dB. In that case, in a city like Cairo, you're still exposed to 80dB during the day and 60dB at nighttime, if you're staying indoors all the time.
And there's more bad news:
European and American cities are not doing much better. While noise levels might be slightly lower than in Cairo, Egypt, or Guangzhou, China, many people are still exposed to excessive noise levels in the West.
Don't believe me?
To help your imagination:
A 50dB sound level equals that of a dishwasher.
You might be thinking right now: "does noise really matter that much?"
And much, much more.
A more detailed list of health-effects is included in my full blog post.
Moreover, noise does not influence everyone in the same way:
If you're a child, of age, work shifts, have a mental illness, or if you're very sensitive to sound, noise will affect your health more than other people.
Fortunately, there are strategies you can use to lower the effects noise has on your health. Examples are wearing earplugs, making sure your home is airtight (and thus noise-tight), using sound blocking curtains or white noise, wearing hearing protectors if you need high cognitive performance, or moving to another location.
Many other options are included in the full blog post.
Finally, I conclude this blog post by arguing that noise problems are expected to increase during the coming decades, and that viewing noise as a "fact of life" is very dangerous for our health - even today.
The point of "being impossible to ignore" is not yet reached with noise, and thus, the problem keeps escalating.
Even though the EU is already legislating very proactively on the topic of noise, the taken steps are not radical enough. The EU's own documents admit that: "[n]oise from traffic, industry and recreational activities is a growing problem."
Let me place that sentence in context: the EU is the legal body that most aggressively deals with curbing noise pollution on a world-wide basis, and yet, after decades of attempting to decrease noise, the problem is still getting worse.
Knowing that fact alone should make you (very) worried. Why? Non-EU countries are often far worse off.
If you're exposed to noise pollution, read this blog, and take matters into your own hands as much as possible. Governments will stand by why your life may be ruined by noise.
I do think that there are worse problems for your health than noise. Not getting sunlight, eating very poorly, or not sleeping well, are probably more harmful to your health than noise pollution.
Having said that, noise will have a negative influence on your life as well.
Let's therefore dig deep into this topic...
Last updated: March 25 2019
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*Post can contain affiliate links. Read my affiliate, medical, and privacy disclosure for more information.
Author: Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MSc - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MSc).
Just imagine the difference between the following two situations:
Firstly, envision that you're in the woods. Fantasize about the sound of the wind blowing through against the leaves, water running downstream, and birds that are singing:
Secondly, envisage that you're in the following location:
What's happening in the latter case?
Cars are honking, people are talking loudly (and perhaps even screaming), three different types of music may be blasting on the background, and there's also noise emerging from a construction site.
Moreover, all the noise stays "trapped" in that location due to all the high rise buildings. What's even more amazing is that you're not even consciously hearing all those sounds in the metropolitan city anymore.
You've gotten "used" to such sounds, right?
The gist of my argument in this blog post is that your brain can never fully get used to noise pollution. Instead, you can only deal with noise by removing the source of the noise, or by making sure that less noise ends up reaching your ears.
If you don't get rid of excessive noise, your health automatically suffers.
Before diving deep into the topic of sound and noise though, let's first make sure we're all on the same level.
Let me thus give you a definition of both 1) sound; and 2) noise.
Let's explore that definition of sound in some more detail.
Observe that I subsume both conscious hearing of sound and a subconscious hearing of sound under my definition. So, even if you're not consciously aware of a sound, those waves are still registered by your brain.
Why do I include subconsiously hearable sound as well? Well, there are things called "subliminal" sounds, which exceed the human hearing threshold. When subliminal sounds are loud enough, they are still registered by your brain and cause damage...
Secondly, I need to define noise...
But let's first take a step back and look at how others define "noise":
Noise is often defined subjectively nowadays. One common definition, for example, is that noise is "unwanted sound".
That definition does not work for me at all.
Because noise has very objective consequences (for your health) at certain levels of loudness. I've therefore decided to combine the objective and subjective domains of noise into one:
Let me explain that definition...
On the one hand, certain sounds can cause an unhealthy reaction in your body, independent of whether you like or dislike that sound. The sound of your favorite music at night when it's played hard enough, for example, will lower your sleep quality, even though you might like that music (at some level).
An 80dB sound level at night - even though you've convinced yourself that you've gotten "used" to that sound - will always be damaging.
Some sounds, on the other hand, can create problems independent of their loudness. If your husband is whispering your name to get attention when you're trying to focus on a complex task, the sound can be distracting independent of its loudness.
Your husband is thus creating noise in that instance.
Hearing a baby cry, moreover, will also trigger a response in you, even though the sound may not be very loud.
So overall, if a sound either 1) reaches a certain loudness threshold; or 2) is disliked by you, that sound becomes noise.
(Nerd section: some sounds are even inherently disliked by human beings, such as low-toned roars in the animal kingdom, which signal aggression, or the sound of a snake, for example. Those sounds have been ingrained in our very being through millions of years of evolution.)
What if I told you that through noise pollution:
I'll explore all these effects in detail in a subsequent section.
First, let's have a more precise look at what sound and noise pollution exactly consists of...
Noise pollution does not just happen in modern societies. Instead, noise has been a problem as old as civilization.
Even in ancient Greece, cities allocated specialized areas for merchants and other occupations which are intrinsically associated with noise creation, which were placed outside the city walls.
Ancient Greece: the birthplace of
Western Civilization - and also the first noise laws.
People have certainly been complaining about noise for centuries as well.
Arthur Schopenhauer - a German philosopher who mainly lived in the 19th-century - is known for his interesting rants on noise.
Let me give you a few excerpts.
First, Schopenhauer talks about how noise increases the difficulty of thinking clearly:
"Occasionally it happens that some slight but constant noise continues to bother and distract me for a time before I become distinctly conscious of it. All I feel is a steady increase in the labor of thinking — just as though I were trying to walk with a weight on my foot."
"Noisy interruption is a hindrance to concentration. That is why distinguished minds have always shown such an extreme dislike to disturbance in any form, as something that breaks in upon and distracts their thoughts. Above all have they been averse to that violent interruption that comes from noise."
Some other passages demonstrate Schopenhauer's deep-seated hatred for noise as well. Here's yet another one:
"The general toleration of unnecessary noise — the slamming of doors, for instance, a very unmannerly and ill-bred thing — is direct evidence that the prevailing habit of mind is dullness and lack of thought."
Interestingly enough, some of Schopenhauer's claims were scientifically verified in the 20th century: noise indeed interrupts and lowers your higher-level thinking ability.
In that time you had to rely on intuition to know whether someone is too loud or not. Today is different, fortunately. Through modern day scientific instruments, you're able to assess sound levels extremely reliably.
By measuring "decibel" level of sound...
(Nerd section: In the early 19th century, the field of psychology was still subsumed under philosophy, and strict psychological experiments were still almost a century away. Measurement of sound was not standardized nor well developed back then.)
To be exact, dB measures the loudness of a sound. dB measurements commonly range from 0 to (roughly) 200. The higher the dB measurement, the louder the sound.
What's very important to understand about dB measurements is that it's a mathematically "logarithmic" scale. Let me explain what the word "logarithmic" means in relation to sound - which is easiest demonstrated through an example:
Assume that you're exposed to a sound of 30dB - which equals the sound levels of standing in the woods when nothing exciting really happens. Sure, you might hear some insects, the wind blowing, and whistling leaves, but overall, it's pretty quiet.
If you compare that 30dB measurement to a 40dB measurement, the sound doesn't get 33% louder. Instead, for every 10dB increase in sound, the loudness increases with a factor of 10. Phrased differently, as there's a 10dB difference between 30dB and 40dB, a 40dB sound level is 10 times as loud as 30dB.
Many people, when comparing 30db with 60dB, would think that 60dB is twice as loud as 30dB. Let's calculate whether that assumption is true. First, observe that there's a 30dB difference between 30dB and 60dB. For every 10dB increase, the sound becomes 10 times as loud. A 30dB increase thus makes a sound 10*10*10 (10^3) = 1,000 times as loud.
The dB scale is developed that way to be easily express sound levels without having to work with extremely large numbers. A 70dB and 140dB sound level have a 10,000,000-fold difference in sound intensity.
Why that scale?
Comparing 30dB to 150dB, for example, would force you to deal with many digits when doing calculations. A dB logarithmic scale is an easy-to-use tool to efficiently express loudness levels.
Let me attempt to read your mind though:
You must be thinking by now: "Bart, how loud are my neighbors during the nighttime?"
Let's find out...
I'll give you some examples of loudness at each dB level:
10dB - Your breathing, the Grand Canyon at night, or the sound of dropping a pin
20dB - Leaves in the forest, whispering of a single person, a rural area with snow
30dB - A common quiet rural area sound level, or running computer.
40dB - Multiple people whispering in a classroom, library sound, birds singing
50dB - Regular conversations, very light traffic, background music, dishwasher
60dB - Air conditioner, bypassing car at 50 miles per hour, restaurant conversation
70dB - Showering, music at regular-loudness, bypassing trucks, vacuum cleaner
80dB - Drilling machine, your morning alarm clock, a bypassing freight train
90dB - Low-flying Boeing 737, mp3 player, lawnmower
100dB - Subway car, food processor, airplane take-off, motorcycle
110dB - A rock concert, jackhammer, or an auto horn at a 3-yard distance
120dB - Classroom filled with screaming children, thunder impact
130dB - Football stadium noise peak
140dB - Jet engine take-off, firecrackers
150dB - Rock concert peak near speakers, fighter jet take-off
160dB - Weapons firing (such as a shotgun),
180dB - Rocket launch
194dB - Official maximum sound level - at this point, a sound is converted into "shockwaves".
Birds singing in the morning at 40dB.
A thousand times less loud than bypassing trucks
And your noisy neighbor? Depending on his location, he's probably putting out 60-90dB from the source.
Fortunately, some of that noise is filtered by the walls of your house...
Let's return to our earlier example of comparing the forest to the city in terms of noise levels.
Sound levels in the forest are located at a 40dB level--the inner city, with bypassing cars at 50 miles and hours, and trucks, ends up with sound levels of roughly 60 to 70dB.
Let's assume - for the sake of argument - that cities have sound levels of 60dB. In that case, there's a 20dB difference between the forest and an inner city.
Again, it's very important to realize that 60dB is not 50% louder as 40dB.
Instead, a 20dB difference entails a 10^2 (10*10) = 100 fold increase in the sound level. Phrased differently, the energy of sound input of your ears is 100 times as strong in an inner city compared to a forest.
And the example does not even take even louder metropolitan cities into account, that often have sound levels up to 80-90dB.
Absolutely amazing (or crazy) difference right?
That conclusion tells you something about human perception. Even though it might seem or feel that there's no extreme difference between an inner city and a forest qua sound levels, the difference is absolutely enormous.
So, what happens next? Let's say you're living in a big city with lots of noise? In that case, your ears and brain have to process that sound. While I'm taking a deep-dive into the health consequences of noise soon, let's first put the noise levels of cities into more perspective...
Let's, therefore, explore the sound levels of several cities, to help you understand how much sound is commonly present there...
You might be skeptical of my assessment, but I've got lots of solid data to back up my claims:
The mean street-level sound in New York city is 70dB+, in Hong Kong sometimes exceeds the 90dB level. Even during the nighttime, sound levels in Hong can approximate 65dB.
Such noise levels have also been found in a smaller Turkish city during the daytime. A 70dB+ level is thus by no means limited to big metropolitan cities.
Other examples of smaller cities?
In Kalamazoo County, Michigan, average daytime noise levels approached 80dB. 70% of people exceeded safe sound level exposure thresholds during the daytime.
You might be thinking: "but those measurements were taken outside".
You're absolutely correct in that assessment.
I've also got a reply to that statement though...
The difference between outdoor and indoor noise levels have also been studied: in Tokyo, there's only a 10dB difference between outdoor and indoor environments. Noise levels of 55dB outside already make 50% of people feel uncomfortable inside - let alone 80 or 90dB.
And yet, residents, industrial workers, and office employees are routinely exposed to 60dB indoor sound levels. Why? Again, 70dB outside translated to 60dB that's commonly experienced inside...
In buildings for some purposes, lots of noise is also generated indoor.
Noise levels in classrooms in Greece and Hong Kong reach as high as 70dB during the day. In London, that's 60dB, in Sweden, 40-70dB.
In many offices too, noise levels easily reach 60-80dB levels.
The same levels, or worse. Noise pollution is thus not restricted to being outside in the city. Noise is everywhere in modern society...
The height of human civilization?
Or the precursor to its downfall?
Of course, the difference between sound levels of indoor and outdoor environments varies for different building types.
Different types of windows (and whether they're opened), walls, ventilation shafts, ceiling types, building height, and doors, all influence how much outdoor sound penetrates indoor.
Opened windows allow for a 10dB difference between outdoor and indoor sound levels. Tilted windows lower that value, and closed windows prevent a sound buildup of as much as 30dB (if you're really stopping all air flow).
Due to the many variables that influence how much sound penetrates into buildings, there's strict no algorithm or formula that can adequately calculate how buildings influence sound levels.
It's, therefore, best to determine the net amount of outdoor noise pollution that reaches indoor on a case-by-case basis. You thus have to measure levels inside buildings.
But there's yet another problem:
While closing your windows inside a city might sound smart to stop noise from entering, you'll build up lots of toxic air through that method.
In cities, indoor levels of pollutants reach up to 10 times as high levels as outdoor pollutant levels.[72; 96] You thus need fresh air, even in the city, and cannot close your windows all the time.
Keeping your windows closed also creates CO2 build up and lowers oxygen levels so that your breathing and brain function is impaired.[73-75] It's best to let CO2 leave your home continually, even during the nighttime.
No airflow in your home equals improper breathing...
Neither option is optimal...
How are indoor noise levels influenced?
I'm not going into full detail of how quick or slowly dB readings decline with distance, as that is a complex calculation.
The bottom line is that noise calculations can be complicated. Again, if you want to know your indoor noise levels, you have to measure them. There's a measurement mini-guide included in the "Frequently Asked Questions" section at the bottom of this article.
(And if you want more information on the physics of sound, just read this book.)
Here's where things get even crazier...
The numbers are higher than you think:
So, what's your conclusion? Is the problem of noise pollution improving or getting worse?
Data clearly demonstrates the latter case to be true, despite governments' attempts at curbing noise.
Let's look at such legislation:
Noise affects you differently during the day and night. The sound of a bypassing truck or a vacuum cleaner, for example, might be somewhat noticeable during the day but can be extremely irritating at night.
During the nighttime, a small amount of noise can already wake you up. Some sources even argue that the 40dB threshold is already too high, and that sound levels between 35 and 40dB already impair sleep quality.
And yet, noise pollution is barely taken into account by most healthcare experts in modern society. That assessment is very strange because noise pollution is the most common complaint that people have regarding their living environment.
So, it's not water pollution or air pollution that irritates people most, but noise pollution.
Here they are:
But that's not all of course:
Church bells, wind turbines, and neighbors throwing parties or people fighting are other reasons why noise pollution exists. Lawnmowers are a frequent source of noise as well, although newer models emit closer to a 70dB sound level instead of the 90dB sound level of the past.
Going clubbing, to a bar or a restaurant? You'll have a 50% chance of getting exposed to excessive sound levels.
Another crazy fact?
Intensive care units are the most damaging noise pollution locations in hospitals.
Additionally, the general sound levels in hospitals have been increasing 10dB in the last few decades. Sound levels in hospitals now commonly exceed the WHO prescribed maximum noise threshold by as much as 20dB.
Quite a dangerous place to spend your time, hospitals...
Fighting cats: nature's original form of
Now you've learned about the dB scale and how noise is omnipresent in our modern society, let's have a look at noise's effects on your body.
Fasten your seatbelts:
My story is getting worse before it gets more positive...
Another overflying airplane again. 80dB of nightly irritation.
Let's find out what exactly occurs in your body when you're exposed to noise.
"Cortisol" and "adrenaline" are two commonly known stress hormones. High levels of noise can increase these stress hormones for several hours. If you're really sensitive to noise, a mere 40dB sound can already increase cortisol levels in your body.
That 40dB sound roughly equals whispering people, or birds singing.
For most people who are less sensitive, I think the threshold lies somewhere between 50 and 70dB during the day.
But there's more to noise:
Noise levels that many would not consider that bad, such as 60db - the sound level of bypassing cars or a restaurant - can already change your (stress) hormone levels:
If you're exposed to more than 60dB due to aircraft noise, for instance, your overall cortisol levels will be 33% higher than people who are exposed to less than 50dB on a 24-hour basis.
The same is true if you're working in an industry with 80dB+ noise levels.
Let's consider the example of someone working in a noisy industry:
If cortisol is measured in the morning time, your cortisol levels will be roughly similar on a working day and an off day. If your cortisol levels are taken in the evening, however, after getting exposed to that loud 80dB noise long enough, your cortisol levels will be much higher than during your day off.
No, sadly enough:
Every one-dB levels increase of the sound level raises your heart rate by 0,29 beats per minute (when studying a range between 50dB and 90dB noise levels)
A 10dB increase in background noise will thus increase your heart rate by 3 beats per minute. A 30dB increase in environmental sound - which is the difference between rural areas and inner cities, will thus increase your heart beats per minute by 10.
It takes just one minute for your heart rate to go up after an increase in sound exposure. Your heart thus works overtime with more noise exposure.
Next, noise has big effects on your sleep quality:
At 32dB, fortunately, you're not awoken by any environmental noise.
At higher sound levels, however, you will be having negative sleep quality effects. A person who whispers at night in your room - at 40dB - is thus already loud enough to wake you up.
Noise during sleep affects many people. In the European Union, almost 600,000 people are experiencing negative effects of more than 55dB of noise during the night.
That 55dB sound level equals hearing a dishwasher or light traffic from a small distance. In other words, 600,000 people have to sleep at night while hearing a sound that's as loud as cars passing by.
One big problem of becoming awake during the night due to noise is that you'll not always remember those moments. Noise can easily put you out of sleep for 15-45 seconds. When morning time arrives, you'll simply think that you've slept through the night - unless the noise was really loud and obvious.
In your body, however, real negative changes occur when you're woken up during the night.
There's more to noise though:
Oxidative stress basically entails the creation of "Reactive Oxygen Species" (ROS) in your body. Some ROS is necessary for optimal health, but ROS levels that are too high can be damaging to your health.
(Oxidative stress means that a specific chemical reaction with oxygen increases in your cells.)
Noise can give you ROS levels that are too high because the ROS levels have not been created in a really natural way - such as temporary stress due to exercise. That oxidative stress, in turn, causes noise-induced hearing loss - a topic I'll come back to later.
Next, noise influences your brain at several levels...
Many brain areas actually participate in your hearing.
I'd like to talk about one very important area called the "amygdala". I've mentioned this brain area before in my blog post about stress.
That amygdala is an alarm bell in your brain. Noise in your environment can trigger that amygdala. As a result, your body releases stress hormones and activates your nervous system.
I've often talked about human beings evolving in Africa roughly 250,000 years ago. Our lifestyle back then was very different than how you're living in modern society.
Back then, your hearing system was naturally attuned to filtering out sounds that could affect your survival.[36; 37; 262; 263]
Traditional societies: never experiencing
consistent 50>dB levels...
When you hear a snake nearby, even though its loudness only approximates 40dB, that sound triggers a "fight, flight or freeze" response in your body. Let's consider these three different fight, flight, or freeze options:
In modern society, however, sounds are almost everywhere - and have become noise.
When there's lots of sound present, your brain has to process and filter all those sounds.
Sounds which are really loud, at a 90dB rating, for example, are also inherently stressful. Even the sound of a loud lawnmower or lots of traffic--although many people do not associate that sound with stress--will automatically cause a small stress reaction in your body.
Noise can thus put your body in a "fight, flight, or freeze" response, by causing your amygdala to ring the alarm bells. That response occurs spontaneously and there's little you can do to prevent it, even though that stress is detrimental to your health in the long-run.
Are there examples of that response automatically being triggered?
The sound of a dental drill, for instance, will automatically trigger a small stress response in many people. The same is true for hearing very hard laughter in the middle of the night, or the breaking of a window.
Almost everyone automatically responds to these sounds because we've been conditioned to interpret them as a form of danger. Loud noises are always interpreted as a form of danger by the brain.
But there's more to our human hearing:
Human ears are not only made to signal danger but also to find our prey.
The fact that the human ear has such a wide ability to pick up different sounds between 0dB and 140dB - which is an obscene 100 trillion (100,000,000,000,000) fold difference - demonstrates that we're meant to be attuned to many types of sounds, and their loudness.
Your ears are thus adjusted to hearing both a fish swimming that's almost unnoticed underwater and the roaring of a lion.
One reason your ears are attuned to so many different sounds is because the different parts of the ear can magnify the intensity of sounds. The ear - fortunately for our modern society - also contains mechanisms to tone down sound again.
And if you ask: "why do we have two ears, then, and not one?", I will answer: because with just one ear, it's harder to pinpoint the location of any sound...
Just as two eyes give you a three-dimensional perspective qua vision, your ears do the same for hearing.
(Nerd section: the paragraphs listed above on how sound works in the brain are oversimplified. A few other brain areas involved in sound are:[264-270]
- the cochlear nucleus in the brainstem, which receives the first sound input from the inner ear, and is the gateway to the rest of the brain's "audio system"
- the olivary body and trapezoid bodies, which help with the localization of sounds and integrate sounds that originate from both ears into a whole.
- the inferior colliculi, interestingly enough, may filter out sounds that you make yourself from conscious awareness, such as from eating your food or breathing. These parts are connected to both the brainstem and auditory cortex.
- the medial geniculate nucleus acts as a relay station between the auditory cortex and some of the aforementioned lower brain areas associated with sound. This area can modulate fear-producing sounds in the amygdala.
- the hippocampus stores memories about past sounds that you've encountered. The hippocampus also stores successful dealings with "stressful noise" you might have had in the past. For example, the hippocampus can store memories on how you deal with your neighbors' noise last year. Your brain can then access that memory to solve problems in the present moment.
- the primary auditory cortex, which is the cortical area associated with sound, is responsible for dealing with more abstract types of sound, such as music.
I think the last area is inhibited in my brain because friends have told me I've got no feeling for rhythm when I dance. You can't have it all in life...)
If you like rock music and you're going to a concert, a 70dB sound might not be interpreted as noise per se. If you need to concentrate on a cognitively demanding task, however, a 70dB sound emerging from a bypassing train will be interpreted as noise.
Of course, at a certain point, all sound becomes noise. Even though you might like the sound of a shogun firing at 140dB, that sound will always act as noise for your body, because your nervous system and brain are simply directly impaired by that stimulus.
Naturally, the setting of sound also matters.
If you hear the previous rock concert music while you're trying to focus, the results might not be that optimal. And if you're presented a barely audible classical music piece at 40dB while thinking you're going to a rock concert, you won't be happy either.
Again, it's just not only decibels matter but also the nature of the sound and the situation you're in when you're exposed.
Noise inhibits your ability to be present with any current activity.
If you hear a baby crying at 40dB, for example, that specific sound trigger can have much more of an impact on your brain than hearing a far away lawnmower at 60dB.
Language is another category of sound that has a large impact on your brain. Hearing your name at 30dB in a crowd can immediately trigger your brain. Hearing spoken language at 50dB can also be more annoying when you're trying to focus, compared to hearing traffic at 70dB.
Different categories of sound thus have different influences.
One reason for this influence is the role of the "amygdala" brain area which I've talked about earlier. More unpredictable noises are more damaging than continuous noise exposure, and trigger your amygdala much easier.
Hearing your name in a crowd will also activate your body...
The bottom line of this section is that noise causes stress in your body by increasing stress hormone levels, activating the amygdala in your brain (the brain's alarm bell), and by creating oxidative stress which can lead to cell damage.
(noise is like an alarm clock that goes off in your brain,
creating activation in your hormonal and nervous system).
Let's now look at the full health-effects of noise pollution.
One last section of gloom and doom before things get better. Hold tight...
In this section, I'll tell you why noise has far greater consequences than just creating hearing losses.
Many people assume that losing their hearing ability is the only negative consequence of noise. Nothing could be further from the truth: noise affects many areas of your health.
I'll tell you about these areas one by one...
I'm happy that depressing list of problems caused by noise is finally finished.
Before we look at solutions, however, let's take a look at individual differences in dealing with noise. Not everyone is affected by noise in the same way.
Some groups are influenced by noise to a far greater extent than others. Let's consider the first group:
That problem doesn't just exist after children are born:
Hearing defects are already diagnosed in fetuses today - hence before children are even born. How? Noise pollution such as road traffic penetrates the mother's belly, thereby affecting the fetus.
The results of excessive noise during pregnancy are birth defects, hearing loss, growth problems, and children being born (too) early.
The problems for children don't stop there:
After birth, excessive noise can cause helplessness, cognitive problems such as an inability to concentrate, impaired learning ability, nervousness, and increased blood pressure.
For every 10dB increase of average (average daily) sound exposure before the age of 7, behavioral problems increase with 7%. More noise additionally makes children's "academic performance" go down, even after the age of 7.
Overall, you'll want your (not yet born) child to steer clear from noisy areas.
(imagine: these children are even more sensitive to noise
than human children because of their ears...)
I've you've been following my blog for a while, you know by now that shift work is no bueno for your overall health.
Shift work increases your chances for all kinds of diseases, such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune disease.
And because shift workers often sleep during the day their sleep quality is even more disturbed by noise compared to people who sleep at night.
During the day almost everyone goes about their daily activities - which are often accompanied by at least some noise generation. At daytime, there's thus more traffic, more machinery being operated, and more "social" noise.
Construction crews are often prohibited from working during the night due to the noise being generated. People working shifts are directly affected by construction noise if they try to sleep during the day.
But there's more: you're also more susceptible to noise if you sleep during the day in the first place. For some reason, the same dB level of noise affects you more during the day than during nighttime.
(I think the reason is that shift-work is inherently stressful, incapacitating your body's defense against new stresses)
Noise is thus another nail in the coffin of shift work...
There is none...
If you're working night shifts, make a plan to quit them as quickly as possible. Also make sure, moreover, to lower your noise levels as much as possible during your sleep periods if you're working shifts anyway.
(Fortunately, the next section will give you several strategies to lower noise levels)
Elderly seem to be especially annoyed by very low tones of noise, such as bass.
The more people are aware of the negative effects of noise - which happens to occur once you grow up - the more people are annoyed by noise as well.
At very old ages, however, annoyance levels due to noise go down again - probably due to hearing loss. That means that there are at least some upsides to aging...
Let's consider two examples, such as Schizophrenia and Autism...
In general, persons diagnosed with Schizophrenia have trouble with motivation, processing information, controlling their emotions, and may lose contact with external reality due to (excessive) noise.
To be more precise, people with Schizophrenia have trouble diverting attention away from noises. Noises may also be processed in a different way if you have Schizophrenia.
It's not a coincidence that Schizophrenia levels are double in urban environments compared to rural areas. The more "noise stress" there is in your location, the worse the symptoms of Schizophrenia become.
Moreover, in autism or Asperger's syndrome - which are both developmental disorders - noise makes it more difficult to understand speech. People with these disorders are also more commonly hypersensitive to sound. The more different types of noise are present, the harder focusing becomes because useful sounds get harder to filter out.
(As a funny side note, some people are annoyed with specific types of sounds very quickly, such as slurping, the sound of eating or sniffing. Although these annoyances are not an official psychiatric disorder, they may indicate a degree of compulsiveness.)
I had to integrate some humor into this blog post...
Let's say you're really sensitive to noise.
In that case, you're more attentive of noises in your environment, you'll discriminate noise more from other types of sound, accept noise something that's outside your control and therefore see it as more threatening, and you'll have problems adapting to noise in the first place.
The more "neurotic" you are, moreover, the more you'll actually be affected by stress - such as noise.
There's also a "gender gap" with noise pollution:
Men, for example, are less able to deal with traffic noise than women. In other areas, such as vigilance or brain processing speed, women are more affected by noise than men.
What's interesting is that people do indeed get used to noise to a small extent over time.[81; 118] In sleep labs, for example, where participants might be subjected to loud noise several nights in a row, have significantly worse sleep during the first night compared to later nights.
However, that effect of "getting used" to noise might also be due to participants getting used to sleeping in another environment, compared to getting used to the noise...
The human adaptability to noise might thus be overstated.
What's important to understand (and remember) is that no-one will ever fully adapt to noise. In other words, you might get partially used to 80dB noise levels, but that noise will still always have negative consequences for your health.
Yes, that's true even if you claim to be "not sensitive" to noise.
So what are the implications of the previous sections up until now?
Noise has become negative byproduct that's intrinsically intertwined with how our modern society is structured.
Don't be bogged down though: in the next section, you'll learn about what you can do about noise.
Genetics, on the one hand, does influence how well you're able to deal with noise. Implementing a few practical solutions, however, will have a greater influence on your annoyance levels than your genetics.
Let me ask you a few questions:
You should know the answer to those question by now...
Of course, many downtown areas of big cities such as New York and Hong Kong are also extremely rich, but many people live there because they have to for their job or business.
Once you've accumulated a nice amount of wealth, it's very probable that you'll choose to live in places that are secluded from the noisiest parts of a city. Of course, buying a $5,000,000 lakeside mansion is not an option for everyone.
Let's, therefore, look at what you can do to stop noise, if you're living in a noisy place anyway. In general, indoor noise is also rated as more annoying than outdoor noise.
That's great news because indoor noise is generally more controllable. Let's, therefore, look at the tips to influence noise pollution in your environment:
Remember from the previous sections that if you have a higher perception of control, the same level of noise is much more bearable.
The first step in the process of dealing with noise is thus mental: creating awareness. Most people don't even know how much noise negatively affect their health. Once you're aware of the noise though, you can start to influence the problem.
Make sure to double or triple check where the noise both inside and outside your home is coming from. Deal with in-house noise first. Do you have multiple electronic devices activated, such as a radio or television?
If so, you're aggravating your own problem.
Another way to increase your perception of control is by making sure that at least some parts of your house have lower noise levels. In other words, if your house cannot be fully noise-free, make sure just one room is.
A lower-noise area allows you to escape the heavier noise-polluted areas of your home. When part of a house has lower noise levels, annoyance goes down in most people - of course, because people can then intentionally control their noise exposure.
Additionally, make sure to read all other 9 tips in this blog post to further increase your perception of control over noise.
The more of these tips you apply, the better the overall results will be and the greater your perception of control.
Bottom line: take action to increase your perception of control and lower annoyance. This problem demonstrates that noise problems can be dealt with, even though it's very hard work sometimes.
(How you see your situation can be part
of the problem or the solution.)
Are you exposed to noise anyway? Then apply the following tip:
Remember that noise literally puts a low-level stress on your body as long as you're exposed. Fortunately, you can compensate (somewhat) for noise exposure.
In the past, I've written many blog posts that offer health strategies which can make you fundamentally healthier:
Bottom line: the more you can improve your overall health, the less of an effect noise will have on you.
Referring to the previous tip of increasing your perception of control, applying these overall health tips will all radically help in that area. With better overall health, noise will simply not impact you as much as when you're in very poor health - you've thus got more leeway.
But how to deal with noise if you have to anyway?
That's when we arrive at the following tip...
Remember that high-level thinking is actually most inhibited by noise. In other words, when you're stressed, the most recently developed human brain areas associated with abstract thought are constrained first, while lower more primitive brain areas begin to predominate more.
To prevent noise from inhibiting high level thinking, wear a hearing protector during the day:
I actually wear that exact same 3M hearing protector myself when needing to focus. The hearing protector really helps me write blog posts because an insane amount of environmental noise is blocked by that hearing protector.
To be precise, this hearing protector will reduce sound levels in your environment with 31dB.
How much is a 31dB reduction?
A lot, actually:
For some people, a 31dB reduction is almost the difference between heaven and hell...
For me that's true for sure...
While there are many hearing protectors on the market that claim a reduction of 35 to even 37dB, the hearing protector listed above has the greatest dB reduction that's actually validly tested.
Why do I recommend this specific hearing protector?
Hearing protectors are also highly recommended for use in children. Remember that children are more vulnerable to noise pollution compared to adults.
Here in the Netherlands - where I live - about 10% of children already wear hearing protectors in classrooms. If you're a parent, I would highly recommend your child to also wear hearing protectors - especially if they're sensitive to noise.
There's one caveat though: I don't think that wearing hearing protectors is a smart thing for your child if they're the only one in the classroom wearing them, because they might get bullied.
As a parent, you have to very carefully weigh the decision of your child wearing hearing protectors combined with the possibility of them being bullied, versus not wearing them at all.
Only if other children are already wearing hearing protectors in the classroom is it more highly recommended to have your kid pick up that habit as well.
I make this statement because I think that the negative effects of social isolation - due to bullying - are far worse than the negative effects of noise. Noise will impair your child's cognitive performance, but social exclusion and bullying can destroy their mental well-being and brain for a long time.
If you're going to buy hearing protectors for your child anyway, buy these:
(Click the picture to see product details)
You can get these children's hearing protectors in multiple colors, such as black for boys, and pink for girls.
Getting the color right will make them look cool for children, reducing the chances of stigma.
Are there other methods for further reducing noise levels?
If you're working at a computer, for the best results, combine the hearing protector with anti-radiation earphones.
(Click the picture to see product details)
With these earphones, you can create background noise in your ear, which further overrules sound originating from the environment.
Why this product?
These "air tubes" do not emit "electromagnetic radiation" directly in your ear because they transmit the sound through a tube, and they are therefore less damaging to your health as regular earphones.
Having electromagnetic frequencies - which are emitted by many electronic devices such as WiFi and cellphone towers - close to your body is almost certainly damaging.
In fact, regular earphones emit electromagnetic frequencies at a location where they are the most damaging: directly against your brain. As you hopefully already know, electromagnetic frequency exposure - such as holding a phone to your brain - is probably not optimal for your health, and potentially very destructive.
For that reason, you need to wear headphones that reduce that radiation, by sharply increasing the distance of the electromagnetic frequencies from your brain. The air tubes pictures above are perfect for that.
Fortunately, the hearing protectors and air tubes combine well.
With the combination, you should be able to block out most noise from your environment, unless you're near an airplane taking off, or at a rock concert...
But what to do during those annoying night times?
For that situation I've got a solution as well:
Wear earplugs when you're going to sleep if there's lots of noise in your environment.
Earplugs are extremely cheap but very effective. By cutting about 30dB of sound from your environment, you can even sleep very well in a 65dB environment that would normally be directly harmful to your health.
What's even more interesting is that the number of stress hormones goes down if you're wearing earplugs while sleeping in a noisy environment. Another hormone that causes you to sleep longer, deeper, and longer, called "melatonin", is increased. Your amount of deep sleep also increases while wearing earplugs.
Overall, earplugs are an inexpensive must-have for dealing with noise in city life.
Earplugs are a win-win.
Insulating rooms can reduce noise pollution by about 7dB. While 7dB might not seem like it's a lot, I estimate that 7dB equals about a 5-fold decrease in noise intensity.
If the noise does not originate from outside the building, but from the building itself, you can choose to insulate rooms with noise-dampening mats. Mats reduce noise by about 7dB as well. Make sure to use non-toxic materials for insulating your bedroom.
Is there more you can do?
Any appliances such as your washing machine should be located far away from your bedroom. Alternatively, don't use appliances during the night.
Overall, your bedroom is the most important area of the house when dealing with noise. More noise in your living room or kitchen can be forgiven, because you're probably not in your house during the daytime anyway.
A bad night's sleep - occurring frequently due to noise - cannot be compensated for. Sleep is a mandatory primary in health...
A difference in wall choice can reduce total sound penetration by 86%.
There's also drywall can even be applied on top of existing walls. To achieve that effect, a substance called "Quiet Solution drywall" need to be added to both the outside and inside of a wall.
The problem with these dry walls is that they're made from gypsum - which often contains airborne toxins. It's better to exclusively use such materials at the outside of your homes, so that toxins cannot leach inside your home.
But what if you're building a new house?
In that case, there are many options for reducing the sound through the construction of walls. Wall studs, for example, can dramatically reduce noise levels. Adding more insulation increases noise pollution too - such as batt insulation or fiberglass insulation.
The problem with some of these materials is that they are toxic and suspected to increase cancer. Wooden wall studs combined with lots of concrete, therefore, are what I consider the best options.
If you apply several layers of these materials well, you can decrease noise levels with 70-80dB. A 80dB noise reduction is insane, and can completely change your life for the better.
But you can go further:
Even floors can be accommodated to reduce noise. Cork and concrete floors are great, both reducing sound levels as well. Hardwood, tile, and laminate floors, on the contrary, increase overall noise levels.
How about the walls of your (existing) house?
Acoustic panels are an additional option to reduce sound penetration in your home:[241-243]
If you cover over 20% of your wall with such acoustic panels, you'll reduce noise levels dramatically. You can even get these panels in different colors so that you can make a wall covered with acoustic panels look like artwork.
The downside of these panels is that they're often covered in flame retardants, which toxin that's emitted into the air. Moreover, acoustic panels will mostly dampen the noise originating from inside a room though, and won't filter out the noise coming from the outside as much.
Some in-house materials can also reduce (mostly in-house) noise pollution, such as carpeted floors.
The problem with carpeted floors, yet again, is that they often cause air pollution. Carpeted floors increase allergy levels and breathing problems, for example.
If you use such floors to reduce noise pollution, you'd better be sure to keep them as clean as possible and to buy carpets that are made from organic material. Even though producers of carpet floors claim otherwise, most modern carpet floors are still problematic.
Rugs and wall hangings are great options to reduce noise pollution as well, reducing overall indoor-originating sound levels. Rugs have the exact same problem as carpet flooring, however, in that they are often polluting the indoor air quality.
Fortunately, you can find high-quality organic rugs here.
What if you're blocking noise through using materials that put toxins into the air anyway? A solution for improving indoor air quality would be to use an air purifier. Make sure to buy an air purifier that does not emit lots of noise during the night, if you use that thing in or near your bedroom.
Additionally, buy an air purifier that does not work with WiFi - again, to reduce electromagnetic frequencies.
Am I done yet?
One of the best options to reduce noise that originates outside your home is to buy noise-blocking curtains.
Noise-blocking curtains can be very efficient:
(Click the picture to view
One problem with these curtains is that they block most sunlight as well. Such curtains are therefore mostly recommended for using in your bedroom at night, and not the rest of your house (if you spend time there during the day.
The curtains displayed above are made of 100% cotton. That material is great because we've finally found yet another noise blocking material that's non-toxic.
While you can buy curtains that block out even more noise (and light at night), such curtains are not recommended because they expose you to more toxins again.
Use the curtains above, and reduce the noise coming from outside your house dramatically. Remember, windows and open spaces leak the most noise into your home.
If maximal noise-reduction is your goal, moreover, make sure your doors and windows are sealed as much as possible, .
Little spaces between windows and window frames, for example, let through lots of noise. The solution is to use (non-toxic) sealants, which prevent sound from leaking through small spaces. Make sure to always opt for non-toxic materials.
Don't forget to seal door bottoms as well, for example, by putting cloth object in front of that opening.
Again, you cannot keep your windows closed 24-7 because the indoor air quality will go down a lot. If you keep your windows closed most of the time, moreover, you absolutely need an air purifier to avoid an indoor buildup of toxins.
Outside your house, lastly, vegetation may reduce indoor noise somewhat.
The best way to implement this tip is to integrate lots of green areas around your house, which will reduce the impact of noise. Make sure to place the vegetation as close to the noise source as possible - a strategy which reduces the dB levels the most.
So if you're living near a busy road, make sure to place trees as close to the busy road as feasible, instead of planting close to your house.
For the best noise-blocking effects, vegetation also needs to be as dense as possible. If you can look through the vegetation, the effects of blocking sound are severely limited. Of course, it's best to use trees that maintain their "leaves" in all seasons, such as cedar or pine trees.
But what if you cannot plant that much vegetation?
In that case, surrounding yourself with lots hedges and plants can still reduce your perception of noise.[12; 82-85]
Even though in some instances greenery may not literally reduce the noise levels in your home, you'll be more able to cope with annoyances of noise pollution - although studies are somewhat conflicted.
Vegetation may lower the perception of noise because you may longer see the source of the problem. Remember that noise is partially located in your mind...
Animals: building shelters for millions of years...
There's more though. Let's look at another tip for the nighttime:
What's "white noise"?
White "noise" is a pleasant sound that's used to block out subjectively-rated annoying sounds from the environment.
If you're exposed to lots of moments of "peak noise", whereby there are sudden and instantaneous high sound pollution levels, white noise is a great solution for you. White noise reduces the difference between the peak of the noise and the regular background sound levels.
Let's say your average nighttime sound level is 40dB. Once in a while, however, a train passes by that creates a 75dB noise. It's almost certain that the 75dB peak will keep you out of sleep because there's an almost instantaneous increase of 35dB of sound levels.
The train acts like a big shock to your system...
White noise might give you a continuous 55dB pleasant background noise. Whenever there's a train passing by while you're sleeping with white noise, there's merely a 20dB difference in peak sound levels. The arrival of the noise pollution is less abrupt, and therefore less of a shock to your body.
What's important to remember is that extreme levels of white noise can become noise pollution again. If you're exposing yourself to 95dB of white noise during the night time, there will certainly be negative consequences for your sleep quality.
Nevertheless, white noise can benefit almost anyone exposed to noise pollution at night. Even just-born babies are helped by white noise.
Get a white noise machine, and sleep better tonight:
Several types of white noise exist: you can even get white noise that acts like a dishwasher or machinery.
I don't think that type of white noise is optimal though, and I would opt for beach or forest sounds. Nature has built affinity to certain sounds - such as leaves or water - deeply inside us.
The machine listed above has many different types of white noise so that you can always use a sound-type that's right for your unique circumstances.
Simple solution, but a big payoff.
Combine this tip with the earplugs for the best results.
First of all, social noise is often the easiest to manage.
One of the most frequent sources of noise pollution are neighbors, who may, for example, have a party with loud music during the night.
Talk to these neighbors, and see whether the problem can be solved socially. Be very polite. If talking does not work after a few tries, report them to the landlord or call the cops on your neighbors.
Sleep is that important for your health. And if the cops don't help sufficiently, monitor the noise levels with a decibel meter and sue these people.
Of course, make sure you're not creating noise in the neighborhood yourself when pointing the finger at someone else. Additionally, make sure you're above reproach in other areas of proper neighborly conduct before you follow through with action.
But what about traffic noise - are you helpless in the face of that problem? Not at all. There options for managing traffic noise in your neighborhood...
Usually, you cannot influence traffic noise as an individual - such making sure traffic curfews get built that dramatically reduce noise levels. If you can arrange such a solution with the city - of course, with the help of your neighbors - you're all going to be very happy.
For example, you can start a petition with your neighbors to reduce sound pollution in your environment. You can together aim to keep the road you're living at free from noisy trucks, or to prevent trains from passing through your town during the night.
How big are the improvements?
Barrier walls, for example, can reduce noise by 10-15dB. 10-15dB might not seem to be a lot, but it's more than a 20-fold reduction in loudness. If you're exposed to 60-70dB of sound during the night, a barrier wall can mean the difference between a long-term hearing loss and having much less extreme consequences.
Roads can also be constructed with specialized asphalt, which reduces sound by 6-12dB. Even for cities themselves, proper design of roads and railways is the preferred option. Naturally, it's much cheaper to design low-sound infrastructure from the outset, compared to correcting the problem by erecting miles of barrier walls afterward.
You thus need to take action before neighborhood plans are already being carried out...
Besides the aforementioned ad hoc solutions, it would be best to pressure automobile companies to reduce their overall noise levels--but few individuals have an incentive to do so. Fortunately, that noise-lowering process is already occurring on its own. Yes really, cars and airplanes have become less loud during the last few decades.
How about airplane noise?
If you start lots of petitions and complain a lot about airplane traffic, the noise is also more prone to be taken into account by governmental institutions. In my country, for example, protests have (somewhat) successfully slowed the increase of noise from Amsterdam's main airport.
(Remember, a reduction in the growth of noise is better than full-blown expansion.)
Overall, there are social solutions to environmental noise problems, if and only if you use your collective bargaining power in your area. On your own, you can only stop your neighbors (if you're lucky)--but not the government or airplane travel companies.
Wolf packs, excellent examples of teamwork: that's the attitude you need to have against environmental noise.
But what to do if nothing helps for reducing noise pollution?
In that case, I've got yet another option:
Yes, you've read that right...
Let me take a quick detour:
In a previous guide on stress, I've included a mindfulness meditation mini-course. Mindfulness meditation can help you accept "what is" - or reality - without continually wanting to change your situation.
Lots of people cannot accept the noise in their environment in the first place. That reaction of non-acceptance is understandable on the one hand, because there's nothing positive about noise at all. As long as you're trying to fight the noise, however, you're suffering the consequences of noise twice.
Well, first there are noise's negative effects in your body, such as the activation of your nervous system and the creation of stress hormones. Secondly, there's the suffering associated with wanting to change your situation.
That suffering added on top of the automatic negative bodily effects. Suffering actually adds insult to injury. The more you're trying to "change" noise, the more you'll suffer.
Worrying and ruminating are all signs that you're suffering over noise...
Of course, I'm not saying you should not actively deal with noise if it's possible to do so. If you can buy curtains that dramatically reduce the noise levels in your house, please do so.
What's very important to understand, however, is that if you're subjected to the noise of bypassing trains every day, and there's no way to change your situation, then it's best to accept the circumstances and stop fighting.
Whenever your fight the inevitable, you're exerting (and wasting) precious energy. Mindfulness meditation removes the suffering from the process over time.
The more you practice mindfulness, the better the results will get.
And by the way:
I'm not just speculating about the validity of using mindfulness in this very specific situation--mindfulness has actually been proven to work in reducing stress associated with aircraft-related noise.[275; 276]
What mindfulness accomplishes on a very basic level - after some time of practice - is quieting the amygdala in your brain. Remember that the amygdala is your brain's "alarm bell" that can trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response.
Mindfulness - by returning your attention to the present moment - lowers the activity of your amygdala. Your prefrontal cortex - the brain part in your forehead which function is to plan, focus, and act as "working memory" - quiets that amygdala during that mindfulness meditation process.
Again, you can read my 100% free and more elaborate guide on mindfulness here.
No strings attached.
Secondly, mindfulness has yet another benefit: teaching your brain to focus on what you deem important, instead of focusing on distractions.
Let me explain how...
Even if there's 70dB of noise outside your home, mindfulness teaches you to divert your attention at the task you should be focusing right now.
There's little benefit to spending your hard-earned energy on focusing on things you cannot change. By focusing on taking action in other areas of your life, you're at least getting some return on your invested energy.
You might be thinking: "how about dealing with noise when you're asleep?"
Well, that case is somewhat similar: don't tell yourself that you cannot sleep due to noise.
People who experience noise are almost inevitably angered or irritated by the fact, and cannot sleep. But you know what? Eventually, almost everyone falls asleep despite the excruciating noise.
The problem of noise thus needs a mental re-frame. Even during sleep, it's not the noise that makes up 100% of the problem, but your reaction towards noise also matters as well.
The Buddha: teaching how to end
suffering for thousands of years.
Thus spend your energy wisely. You can only spend your energy once.
But what if all else fails?
Or don't you like my previous suggestions?
In that case, push the "nuclear button":
Moving should never be your first option.
But sometimes, there's literally no alternative. If you're living near industry, or a very busy railroad or airport, there's very little you can do to fully mitigate the risks.
You'd end up wearing ear protectors during the day, and earplugs at night. And ask yourself, what kind of life is that? Maybe you're really sensitive to noise - that's a fact you also need to take into account.
In all of these cases, if life's not worth living in a noise-hellhole, please move to another location that has lower noise levels. Don't wait until you've ruined many more years of your life.
Moving: simple, but ultimately very effective.
My blog post on noise pollution.
Let's conclude, and take the 10,000-yard view...
Environmental noise is sometimes referred to as the "forgotten pollutant". At other times, noise is named the (intentionally) "ignored pollutant".
There's truth to both statements...
On the one hand, many institutions have started proactively legislating to keep noise levels down. The EU is one such institution. While the US has historically been the first country that developed laws on noise, these laws are not upheld as strictly as they should.
On the other hand, noise has traditionally almost been accepted as a "fact of life", a byproduct of "progress" during the Industrial Revolution.
In a sense, the mentality of that assessment is still predominant today. Even though governments legislate to keep noise levels down, levels have still been increasing rather than decreasing in the last few decades.
Noise is thus still ignored and forgotten.
Seeing noise as an inevitable byproduct of the capitalist system, however, is very dangerous. When we see noise as "natural", we're closed off from finding solutions to the problem. Why? Well, by seeing noise as inevitable it is not identified as a solvable problem in the first place.
Let's consider why the topic of noise pollution problem is so important:
In 2050, the number of people living in urban environments will almost double. Not only will more people thus be exposed to noise pollution, but increasing population densities will also increase overall noise levels all by themselves.
That's double trouble...
And again, noise pollution is currently already increasing.
1 million healthy life years are lost every year in the EU due to noise pollution. What do these numbers imply?
Let's stay very conservative, and assume that 5 million healthy life years are lost yearly on a worldwide basis. Let's also say that the average person becomes 80 years old, but only stays healthy for 50 years (without having one disease). In that case, the equivalent of 5,000,000 / 50 = 100,000 lives are lost on a yearly basis due to noise.
In a decade, noise kills the equivalent of one million people. And by the way, that number only takes traffic-related noise into account, ignoring noise of social origins and industry.
These numbers will also increase over time...
The EU has a 40dB (averaged) nighttime limit on noise. And yet, that limit is exceeded almost everywhere. Of course, you can certainly argue that a 40dB limit is unrealistic because that limit is exceeded almost everywhere.
But still, then, I would recommend creating more realistic noise limits, strictly enforcing them, and slowly bringing the noise limit down to 40dB over a period of time.
Noise, to me, is very simple from a political perspective: it's a form of violence leveled upon fellow human beings. I don't care if you want to produce 100dB of noise in your own home, and destroy your own hearing capacity.
Once noise affects other individuals, it's a mild form of violence.
There are some (big) problems with my position, of course, such as an inability for society to operate without at least some noise. But I do think that people should at the least be compensated for any negative effect.
Many people living near industry or airports, for example, are polluted by noise but not compensated at all for the "annoyance".
Other people live in $5,000,000 mansions, use the airplanes that create noise pollution, but don't contribute to solving the problem at all - and are not hit hard by noise.
The same is true for car owners: people who drive cars do not compensate people who live in poor neighborhoods that are located close to highways.
Lastly, let's also remember that noise pollution affects wildlife outside as well.
Even in excluded wildlife areas, the levels of sounds have increased 10-fold over what was previously present without human intervention.[285-287] With an increase in noise over the coming decades, that effect will only become stronger as well.
It's a time for choosing...
You've now got some tools to reduce noise pollution in your environment.
Couldn't be any simpler.
Although finding solutions may not be easy, you now at least understand the problem and why noise causes trouble.
Understanding is the first step to finding solutions...
And yes: you can completely change your life by getting this issue handled.
Lots of people have done so before. So can you...
To be sure, there are many, many different types of decibel measurements.
Examples are dB(A), which emphasizes the impact of noise that you can consciously hear, and dB(C), which concentrates on the peak impact of noise levels.
In this blog post, I've not told you about or use these alternative measurements. There's no need to excessively complicate my argument. Instead, I've done my best to make this information as accessible and readable as possible.
If I were to use weighted averages over the nighttime, corrected for Herz measurements as is done in the DB(A) measurement, used minima and maxima, people would no longer be interested in reading this guide.
Using my methodology, I've simply distinguished between day and night values and attempted to do justice to peak and tones of noise, as it can be maintained that these are the most important basic noise conceptions.
Buy this specific device. The device might not be the most precise on the market today, but for general sound measurements, it has a top-notch price/function relationship:
For under $20, you can get a great general impression of the sound (or noise) levels in your residential, work, or recreational environment...
Rules for measuring:
For a valid reading for your location, I recommend to take sound readings during the morning, evening, and nighttime (before you go to bed), for 1-2 weeks long.
An alternative method to measure sound is to take up to ten completely random measurements throughout the year, which will be representative of the average noise level in that environment for the entire year.
Yes, there certainly are ways to know the general noise pollution levels in areas. I recommend you find a noise map of your area of interest. Many governments actually map sound and noise levels nowadays.
In the Netherlands - where I live - you can basically view a map of the sound levels in any city, such as Amsterdam:
For different countries, different maps can be found online. These maps are called "noise maps", and the method to produce these maps is called "strategic noise mapping".
Drums, thunder, bass, and erupting volcanoes are all examples of low-frequency sounds.
But what are low-frequency sounds?
Let's make a small detour to answer that question. The healthy human hearing threshold can hear noise between 20 and 20,000 Hz.
Hz or "Hertz" is the measurement of the frequency by which sound waves oscillate within one second. Low-frequency sounds - ranging between 20Hz and 200Hz, have been undervalued in terms of the possible damage they can do to your health.
Low-frequency noise is not properly weighted, for example, by the dB(A) measurement. And yet, low-frequency noise can affect sleep, focus, heart rate, and give you a negative mood plus fatigue.
I would distinguish between three main categories of noise: 1) transit - such as airplanes, road traffic, and railway traffic; 2) industrial and construction noise; 3) recreational and neighborhood noise.
Of course, there are other types of noise, which have not been considered within this picture.
Let's first consider industrial noise:
Next, let's take a look at transit noise:
Recreational and other types of noise, lastly, are very irregular, in the same way as industrial noise is.
A party thrown by your neighbors might be a once-in-a-year event but might nevertheless keep you awake for hours during the night.
Alternatively, cats fighting outside your house or children screaming outside might be somewhat more predictable.
*Post can contain affiliate links. Read my affiliate, medical, and privacy disclosure for more information.
Author: Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MSc - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MSc).
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