04/07/2017

City Noise Could Quiet The Brain For Some

4:37 minutes

In March, the Department of Transportation created a visual showing the levels of airplane and traffic noise that blankets much of the US. According to the map, 97 percent of Americans could be exposed to transportation noise measuring around 35 to 50 decibels — about the loudness of a humming refrigerator.

Health-wise, all that noise can be bad for us, but our relationship with the sounds around us is often more complicated, says science journalist Susie Neilson. It may even have some benefits. Neilson explored the link between city noise and our creativity in a recent article for Nautilus magazine, called “Noise is a Drug and New York is Full of Addicts.”

“It’s true that for the most part, living around a lot of noise can be really detrimental,” Neilson says. “So for one, I mean obviously there’s hearing loss, which can occur at regular exposure to really high levels of noise, so if you work around subways, around airplanes.”

[Here’s how to develop a better cochlear implant.]

Noise also stresses the body, she says, causing it to produce a stress hormone called cortisol — which can affect us negatively if we’re exposed to it for too long. “Some of the effects that people have documented, particularly with high noise levels, include … increased rates of heart attacks for people, you can also experience depression and respiratory illnesses,” she says.

“So it’s really, overall, not a great thing to be living around a lot of noise.”

Neilson says when she first moved to New York, she was struck by how loud it was. “I lived in the East Village and construction would start at 6 a.m. and continue into the evening and at midnight there were all these garbage trucks, and I thought, ‘How am I going to live with all these noises all the time?’”

But soon, Neilson found herself considering the role that city sounds were coming to play in her life. When she visited the city’s only anechoic chamber — a tomblike room of just 20 decibels — she writes that the silence brought on a feeling of withdrawal.

“So, Joan Didion the writer, in her essay ‘Goodbye to All That,’ writes about all the different kinds of noise she’s exposed to on a daily basis: the visual noise, the sensory noise, the smells and how it sort of contributes to her creativity,” Neilson says. “And so I started wondering, is there a relationship between the way that we think and the noise that we’re exposed to?

She found a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, proposing an almost Goldilockslike link between ambient noise and creativity — as in, a little bit of noise is just right. Specifically, researchers found that a noise level of about 70 decibels could actually enhance creative thinking. That’s about the loudness of a bustling café, they suggest. “Or traffic in midtown Manhattan,” Neilson writes.

“So, at a certain level of noise, people are actually more creative and they think more freely because the noise allows them a little bit of distance between the workings of their mind and the sort of external world,” Neilson explains.

For her, at least, the principle fits. “It’s interesting, too, because people’s levels are different. So I have ADD,” she says. “And so for me, a higher level of noise is actually good because my internal level of noise is a little lower because I have a little less dopamine flooding through my neurotransmitters.”

“So, I do best at a level of, like, 80, which is why I think I’m good in New York.”

—Julia Franz (originally published on PRI.org)


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Segment Guests

Susie Neilson

Susie Neilson writes about science and society. She’s based in Seattle, Washington.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Now it’s time to play Good Thing Bad Thing. Because every story has a flip side.

Last month, the Department of Transportation released new figures showing that nearly all Americans, 97% of us, could be exposed to a background hum of airplane and highway noise. That’s actually right outside of my office, that sound is coming from. Clocking in at about 35 to 50 decibels, and that’s about the loudness of a humming refrigerator. And while that may not seem loud, even that soft hum can be enough to disturb your sleep, according to the World Health Organization, among other health effects we’ll talk about in a moment. But, yes, there is a silver lining too.

Here to tell us the good and the bad is Susie Neilson. She’s a journalist who writes about science and society, and her article’s on noise, called “Noise Is a Drug and New York Is Full of Addicts.” It appears in the latest issue of Nautilus magazine. Welcome to Science Friday, Susie.

SUSIE NEILSON: Hello, Ira, great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go in reverse. We usually do the good, let’s do the bad first. Let’s start with the bad. Living around a lot of noise sounds like a bad thing.

SUSIE NEILSON: Yeah, and it’s true that, for the most part, living around a lot of noise can be really detrimental. For one, I mean, obviously there’s hearing loss, which can occur at regular exposure to really high levels of noise. So if you work around subways, around airplanes, but even if you’re living in New York and regularly exposed to traffic, which can get really high, like 85 decibels.

Then there are these secondary exposure effects to noise levels. So noise is a stressor on the body, so it can produce cortisol, which is the stress hormone. A prolonged cortisol flooding can lead to a lot of negative health effects, including– I mean, if you’re a finance bro, then you’ll have the effects too.

IRA FLATOW: Cortisol is not a good thing to have flowing through you.

SUSIE NEILSON: Yeah, exactly. And if you’re in New York, a place like New York, or any place with a lot of noise, those effects compound. Some of the effects that people have documented, particularly with high noise levels, include increased rates of heart attacks for people. You can also experience depression and respiratory illnesses. It’s really, overall, not a great thing to be living around a lot of noise.

IRA FLATOW: All right, now I know. I understand, though, there is a good thing. What’s the good part about the noise?

SUSIE NEILSON: So this is actually really interesting for me to research. When I moved to New York, I was so struck by the high levels of noise. I lived in the East Village, and construction would start at 6:00 AM and continue into the evening, and at midnight there were all these garbage trucks. And I thought, how am I going to live with all these noises all the time.

But as I got habituated to the noise, I found myself kind of missing it when I left. I found that I was looking at all of these other people that moved to New York, and realizing that there’s this common thread of the way people talk about New York noise. That’s the sort of love hate relationship. Joan Didion, the writer, in her essay “Goodbye to All That,” writes about all the different kinds of noise she’s exposed to on a daily basis. The visual noise, the sensory noise, the smells, and how it sort of contributes to her creativity. So I started wondering, is there a relationship between the way that we think and the noise that we’re exposed to.

I found this study by Dr. Ravi Mehta, who’s a neuroscientist, who found out that there’s actually this Goldilocks relationship between noise and human creativity. At a certain level of noise, people are actually more creative and they think more freely, because the noise allows them a little bit of distance between the workings of their mind and the external world.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s sort of a little stimulus. But I guess if you go too far, it’s going to get in the way of your creativity.

SUSIE NEILSON: Yeah, and it’s interesting too, because people’s levels are different. I have ADD, so for me a higher level of noise is actually good, because my internal level of noise is a little lower, because I have a little less dopamine flooding through my neurotransmitters. So I do best at a level of, like, 80, which is why I think I’m good in New York.

IRA FLATOW: OK. So everybody here who has ADD, come on down to New York City.

SUSIE NEILSON: Yeah, come to New York. That’s why there are so many of us here.

IRA FLATOW: You’ll flourish like Susie Neilson, a journalist based in the Pacific Northwest. [INAUDIBLE] She writes about this in a magazine, Nautilus.

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