Nov. 23, 2012 at 8:38 AM ET
As a Petty Officer on active duty in the U.S. Navy, Nick Hair spent nine consecutive months living on a ship the size of a city with 4,000 sailors on round-the-clock shifts. He slept in a room stuffed with 100 other people and longed for the days he spent hiking in the woods and running in wide fields back home near Westchester, New York.
A few months before returning to solid land, he heard about a silent room at Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis, Minn., called the "anechoic chamber," a room with no echoes. More than three feet of Styrofoam wedges, concrete and steel insulation make it 99.99 percent sound absorbent, earning it the Guinness World Record for the world's quietest place.
Hair wrote an email to Steve Orfield, who founded the lab in 1971, and offered to volunteer at the end of his deployment.
"You could consider my desire to spend time in your chamber as a therapeutic option in an effort to return my life to some degree of normalcy," Hair wrote.
Orfield was touched by the sailor's request, and agreed to honor it despite the fact that his laboratory is typically used to test product sound levels on devices ranging from motorcycles to hearing aids. He warned Hair that it might not be as therapeutic as he hoped.
"As you have less and less background noise, your hearing gets more and more sensitive and you can hear remarkable levels of things," explained Orfield. "You become your own noise source. And you start to hear your heart, and you might hear your lungs, and you might hear your carotid arteries, and you might hear all kinds of bodily sounds."
Humans rely on the environment — and sound reflections in it — for balance. But in the anechoic chamber, 99.99 percent of sound is absorbed, which would leave almost no information for Hair to judge his position in the room.
No one had ever stayed in the chamber longer than 45 minutes. But Hair was eager to wipe clean the memories of jet engines roaring for takeoff from the flight deck, and to erase thousands of hours of relentless chatter in the belly of the boat.
Putting the chamber to the test
It's not just the level of noise, but also the "character" of sound that brings clients to Orfield Laboratories. Clients like Smiths Medical use the anechoic chamber to measure their products and make them quieter in operating rooms around the country. Steve Orfield has studied other consumer products, like vacuum cleaners, and found that consumers don't actually just want their products to be as quiet as they possibly can be.
"What people wanted was not a loud or a quiet vacuum, but one in the middle that had a lot of smooth low frequency and just sounded like it was doing what it needed to do in an unobtrusive and comfortable way," said Orfield. "We don't want products to be noisy, we don't want products to be quiet, we want products to be in a certain zone that sounds like they're operating under a quality mode," he continued.
Dr. Peggy Nelson is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota and the Chair of the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences there. She studies how noises affect people and agrees that, "There are sounds that make you say, 'Oh, that's a high quality machine.'" Like cars, for example.
In an automobile that sounds like it is of high quality, "The doors shut in a certain very 'thump' sort of way. The engine makes a nice roaring noise," said Nelson. "So we're looking to try to identify those (sounds) and maximize those," said Nelson.
Once Smith Medical completed their testing for the day, it was Hair's turn inside the anechoic chamber.
"I think you might have the sense after even just five minutes or so, that this is an unusual place, and it might not be a place I want to stay much longer," said Nelson.
He exchanged his crisp collared shirt for a comfortable T-shirt, took off his shoes, and tugged open the double doors.
Hair settled into the lone chair in the corner of the chamber, and arranged his feet on the wire floor. “The world’s quietest place. Cool,” he said, smoothing his jeans with both hands. It only took a few minutes before Hair started rustling around in his chair and breathing and swallowing more frequently. After about 30 minutes, his voice was hoarse voice from the long silence. "My right ear is playing a trick on me,” he said. “Sounds like wind."
As Orfield and Nelson had predicted, he did feel "bugged out" and "queasy" at intervals, with only the internal movements of his own body to provide sound.
But in the end, Hair defied all odds, beating the previous record of 45 minutes and staying in the chamber for a full hour. When his time was up, Hair braced himself against the chair and slowly straightened up. “I feel wobbly,” he said. “But I feel good!”
And after an hour in complete silence, he could no longer hear the jet plane engines taking off — a sound that had haunted him since his return. “I believe it’s been negated to some degree,” Hair said. “Hopefully long-term. But, for now, it’s good enough for me.”
"There is such a thing as absolute silence," said Hair. But that's not something he would seek again, at least not for a full hour. "Maybe, you know, a good 15, 20 minutes at a time," he said with a smile.