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Seeking silence: What it's like in one of the quietest rooms in the world

Some people freak out, others find the experience peaceful. Silence and quiet is therapeutic in a world filled with noise pollution, experts say.
by A. Pawlowski / / Source: TODAY

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Visitors who spend time in one of the quietest rooms on the planet can hear their joints move, their hearts beat, their necks creak and their lungs inflate. A little stomach gurgle can sound thunderous. The body is the show.

Welcome to the anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis, Minnesota — once declared the quietest place on Earth by Guinness World Records. (The title has now gone to a room at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington.)

With the walls, floor and ceiling completely covered by sound-absorbent fiberglass wedges, the noise level is measured in negative decibels, or below the threshold of perfect human hearing.

It's so silent some people freak out, especially since the staff usually has visitors sit in the chamber in the dark, taking away both sound and light cues, which can be extra disorienting, said Steve Orfield, president of Orfield Laboratories. People last 45 minutes to an hour max before they become nervous.

Resetting our brains, finding peace

But many visitors find the experience peaceful, and a welcome break from the noise of the world and constant alerts from gadgets. Orfield, who studies how people perceive sounds, is a big believer silence can be therapeutic.

“It’s something that costs us nothing, we need to go nowhere to find it, we’re in complete control of it,” Orfield told TODAY.

“We have — at no-costs — a solution to great levels of peace and deactivation and we’re just not pursuing it. Even middle-aged people are sitting with headphones in their office listening to music all day long.”

Orfield has seen visitors to the anechoic chamber “reset their brains” and find peace. One man with autism told him, “I haven’t felt so good in years,” he recalled. Periods of silence may help people suffering from PTSD or anxiety disorders, but more research is needed in the field, he said.

The anechoic chamber’s main use is commercial, with companies using it to test the sound levels of products like pacemakers, defibrillators or other implantable devices.

Outside the lab, the noise is inescapable — a real problem in the modern world.

Noise pollution in open-plan offices is now a common complaint, with one in six workers saying it negatively impacted their wellness, according to a new survey of 500 executives and employees.

Workers exposed to occupational noise were more likely to have high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and hearing difficulty, another recent study found.

Your body doesn't get used to noise

Environmental noise, like road traffic, can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, as well as sleep disturbance and stress-related mental health risks, the World Health Organization noted.

"If you define health as a decent quality of life, then noise seriously impedes your well-being"

In fact, experiencing “noise annoyance” from cars, planes, construction and other sources, was associated with depression and anxiety.

“If you define health as a decent quality of life, then noise seriously impedes your well-being,” said Arline Bronzaft, an environmental psychologist in New York who has been studying the effects of noise on people for decades.

“Noise can create stress, and stress can break down the body.”

Your body does not get used to dealing with noise; it just adapts to it — but at a physical and mental cost, she noted. Bronzaft’s landmark study found kids sitting in classroom adjacent to a train track were behind in reading scores compared to kids in the same school who sat on the quiet side of the building.

As a board member of GrowNYC, a non-profit that aims to improve the city’s quality of life, people often call her if they can’t solve a noise problem. She’s had to break up neighbors from fighting with each other over stereos or heavy footsteps.

“[Noise] really does get you angry, it gets you upset. It also causes something else: It says you’re not in control of your own life,” Bronzaft said. “Noise is not necessarily loud sounds. There are intrusive sounds that disturb you mentally and physically.”

That includes sounds like constant smartphone alerts that inundate people, she said.

How to cope:

First, realize the health consequences of a noisy job or living on a loud street and decide if you need to make a change.

  • We must have some quiet in our lives.

“It’s good for the body, it’s good for the head and it’s good for the soul," said Bronzaft. "I do appreciate quiet, I think it’s important.”

  • Take regular quiet breaks.

Realize that you have a choice about noise, said Orfield. Most people can go in a room, close the door and look out the window to watch nature. Take off the earbuds. Noise-canceling headphones can be good, but can also disconnect you with people around you.

  • If you live in a noisy area, take steps to sound-proof your home.

Bronzaft has double glazed windows to keep out New York City’s noise, so that it’s her quiet sanctuary.

Listening to the birds, the wind and the water flowing can soothe and comfort us. “We need that calming effect,” Bronzaft said.

  • Total silence isn’t always necessary.

There are many good sounds, Bronzaft said. It depends on what you like, but children laughing, loved ones talking, soft music playing can all be wonderful. No noise-canceling headphones required.

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