True Silence Will Drive You Mad

“Silence best speaks the mind.” —Phineas Fletcher, Piscatorie Eclogues

In A Nutshell

The quietest room in the world is at Orfield Labs in Minneapolis. Engineered to keep out as much noise as possible and absorb noise rather than reflect it, it has an average sound level of about –9 decibels (while most of us would call about 30 decibels a comfortably quiet level). Spending time alone in the room means that you can hear nothing but your own organs working, and it’s such an unsettling experience that it’s led to hallucinations and a record time spent in the room of 45 minutes.

The Whole Bushel

Some days, all we want is silence. We’ve spent the whole day listening to phones ringing, people talking, music playing, and kids screaming, and it can seem like there’s nothing more needed than some time spent in complete and total silence.

But just what is silence?

On average, we think of a room with a sound level of 30 decibels as being pretty comfortably quiet. The ambient sounds of a peaceful country setting—birds, water running in the distance, the rustling of trees—is somewhere around 40 decibels, and the sound of our breathing is about 10 decibels.

The anechoic chamber is a room that has a sound level of –9 decibels. The term means “no echo,” and these specially designed chambers absorb sound rather than reflecting it, creating a chamber with an amazing amount of absolute nothingness. The walls are lined with sound-proof, wedge-shaped structures and the floor is a mesh material. Any sound that you do hear, you hear exactly as it is created, with no echoes, reflections, or distortions.

Most anechoic chambers are built for universities or government research facilities, but there’s an independently owned one in Orfield Labs in Minneapolis and it’s been certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the Quietest Place on Earth. The lab was, ironically, once a sound studio that hosted artists like Bob Dylan and Prince. Now, it’s home to this deeply, deeply disturbing room that does have a practical purpose—testing experimental technology from computer parts to medical supplies and hearing aids. When your phone lights up or the lights on your car’s dashboard come on, you don’t hear it at all—and that’s probably in part because it’s been tested in a chamber like the one in Minneapolis.

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Anechoic chambers are even used by NASA to train astronauts to cope with the complete lack of sound that they can experience. They need a crash course in this, because no matter how crazy a day we’ve had, absolutely silence can drive us crazier.

Absolute silence is filled by the sound of your own body. You can hear your breathing, your heart beating, you can hear the blood in your veins. You can hear your pulse, you can hear your bones rub against each other, you can hear your skin sliding over your muscles. You can hear tendons creak, organs churning . . . and that’s usually about the point where people start hearing things that aren’t really there.

It starts with hallucinations of noise as the brain tries to fill in what we’re so used to being surrounded by. That can lead to nausea and panic attacks. With no sound, there are also no echos to orient yourself, and that just makes the sensations worse.

Sit in the dark, and it’s much, much worse. Without external stimuli, coordination and balance fail, hallucinations start, and within minutes many people are asking to be let out. Most people are insufferably uncomfortable after about 30 minutes. The rare person can last 45 minutes or so, but that’s about the limit of our ability to deal with such complete silence.

Show Me The Proof

The Guardian: Experience: I’ve been to the quietest place on Earth
Noise Comparison Decibel Chart
MPR News: In Minneapolis, the world’s quietest room

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