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Monique Keiran: Constant noise really is bad for our health

Quiet might be extinct, I thought atop the Highlands’ Jocelyn Hill. I was far from the nearest road, but the whine and hum of traffic climbing the Malahat drifted across Finlayson Arm.

Quiet might be extinct, I thought atop the Highlands’ Jocelyn Hill. I was far from the nearest road, but the whine and hum of traffic climbing the Malahat drifted across Finlayson Arm.

And then a helicopter whirred into view below, drowning out pretty much everything.

A well-travelled friend tells me he found true quiet once. He had to climb to the top of El Teide volcano on Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, to find it.

For the record, I don’t classify sounds of nature as noise. There are exceptions: the shotgun-crack of acorns hitting the rooftop, or predawn springtime choruses of birdsong, or monkey screams, jackal howls or Nature Boy’s snores.

Research indicates we humans find everyday nature sounds relaxing. Serenades of birdsong and squirrel chatter soothe our usual stress responses, lower our blood pressure and heart rate, and slow and deepen our breathing.

Our primitive brain monitors our environment for the reassurance these sounds represent. They signal that all is well. When birds, frogs, squirrels and the rest fall silent, the quiet automatically kick-starts our internal stress response.

Back in the day when we were roaming the pre-Serengeti, silence indicated a threat nearby. Maybe a predator stalking us, or a rival tribe sneaking through the grass.

Human-caused noise, however, affects us in ways quite the opposite of benign birdsong. A growing body of research shows that today’s chronic hubbub of traffic, construction, sirens, airplanes and leaf-blowers is wrecking our health and our productivity.

Victoria residents who live in the soundscape of Victoria’s harbour airport will appreciate a study in which researchers measured how aircraft noise affected learning. Before the Munich-Riem airport in Germany was moved in 1992, nearby students scored lower on memory and reading tests than students elsewhere. After the airport closed, their scores improved. However, the students’ counterparts near the new airport at Freising saw their scores decline.

Other studies show that students at any school subjected to airport noise suffer academically compared to students at quieter schools.

In another study, researchers found children whose bedrooms look out on busy traffic have more emotional and behavioural problems than children who sleep in quiet rooms.

Other research demonstrates background noise increases the release of adrenaline and cortisol — the body’s stress hormones — and raises blood pressure and heart rates in adults and children.

Furthermore, you might think you get used to constant background noise, but your body does not habituate. The underlying stress responses, and their downstream effects, remain elevated.

Noise stresses us out, even if we’re not consciously hearing it. It affects our sleep, our heart rate and blood pressure, our immune system and even our fertility.

It affects our ability to learn and our ability to concentrate on tasks. It deep-sixes our accuracy while doing those tasks.

Which leads me to wonder what some employers are thinking with open-plan, no-assigned-office-space work environments.

I spent grade school trying to learn in a “revolutionary” open-plan school — one of those 1970s education experiments touted as the Next Best Thing. All I can say is that the person who came up with the idea clearly hadn’t spent much time teaching in a classroom. The concept, when implemented, didn’t work for students (or teachers) in the 1970s, and — surprise, surprise — researchers are finding it rarely works for employees now.

Today, those schools are getting walls, and numerous studies are finding that open-plan offices lead directly to decreased productivity, increased employee illness and more sick leave.

Perhaps it’s time companies sent their organizational Bright Ideas people on retreat to really quiet places, where the twitter of birds and sigh of wind in the trees might help restore clear thinking.

The top of Tenerife’s El Teide might be a place to start.