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Feb. 15, 2013

Silence Is Noisy

by Katherine Bouton

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I’ve often wondered if I hear in my dreams. I sense that I hear voices, tone and pitch and intonation, as precisely as I once did. In dreams, it turns out, I am on level ground with those who hear. “When we hear voices, spoken language, in dreams,” Freud writes in The Interpretation of Dreams, “we are all abnormal in the sense that there is no actual source of sound around; all the voices are silently generated by our minds, not by some external entity.”

Sometimes I take my hearing aid and implant off and just relax into silence. Wearing them is tiring. Listening is exhausting. From the time I turn out the light till daybreak, I am essentially blind and deaf. My husband acts as my eyes and ears when he’s around. My dog fills in when he’s not. He barks when someone knocks on the door or, at our house in the country, when someone comes up the driveway. But like many people with hearing loss, I feel vulnerable at night. I think I would hear the smoke alarm right over the bed. I think the dog would bark or jump on me if someone tried to break in. I hope. There are devices designed for the hearing impaired—alarm systems that work with vibration or strobe lights—but for the moment I’m taking the low-tech dog route.

What do we hear when there’s nothing at all to hear? George Prochnik, the author of In Pursuit of Silence, went in search of the quietest place in the world and eventually found himself in the basement sanctuary of the Trappist New Melleray Abbey, in Iowa. The monk who showed him the way warned him, Prochnik writes, “that the silence of the room was so intense that it was likely to ‘take me outside of my comfort zone.’” Some people from big cities, the monk added, find themselves “physically unable to remain in the chapel for even five minutes.”

As it turned out, it wasn’t as quiet as it might have been. There was another monk in the room, “a large man sitting with his legs wide apart and his hands on his thighs, breathing quite loudly.” But that doesn’t seem to have disturbed Prochnik’s sense of the deep silence. The monks, he observed, listen to silence for self-knowledge. Far from being out of his comfort zone, he was disappointed when it was time to leave.

Prochnik doesn’t describe what silence sounds like, but I can. It’s noisy. The brain creates noise to fill the silence, and we hear this as tinnitus. Perhaps only someone with profound deafness can achieve this level of silence, so paradoxically loud. As Brad May, a professor of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at Johns Hopkins University, explained to me, once the auditory machinery that would ordinarily be transmitting sound to the brain stops working, the synaptic balance in those neurons goes haywire, because nothing is regulating it, “nothing is pulling it down into its proper level of activity.” And so the brain starts generating its own activity in that pathway, and the result can be ringing, or buzzing, or humming—all of which fall under the catchall term “tinnitus.” Sylvia, in Nina Raine’s Tribes, says of going deaf, “No one told me it was going to be this noisy … It’s this buzz. This roar and outside … it’s all—black.”

I have it easy, and in fact kind of like my tinnitus: it changes pitch from time to time, an ethereal deep outer space keening.
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Excerpted with permission from Shouting Won't Help: Why I--and 50 Million Other Americans--Can’t Hear You by Katherine Bouton. Published by Sarah Crichton Books, 2013.
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Katherine Bouton is a former editor at The New York Times, where she worked for The New York Times Magazine and The New York Times Book Review, as well as the daily Science and Culture desks. Her nonfiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and many other magazines and reviews. She is currently a regular reviewer and contributor to Tuesday’s Science Times section of the New York Times. She lives in New York City with her husband, Daniel Menaker. They have two grown children.
 
Author photo by Joyce Ravid
About Katherine Bouton

Katherine Bouton is the author of Shouting Won't Help: Why I--and 50 Million Other Americans--Can't Hear You.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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