Excessive noise (boom cars) make you violent and stupid.http://www.science-spirit.org/newdirections.php?article_id=733
The Noisy Epidemic
After physician Louis Hagler retired, he set himself a single goal: to learn
to play the piano. He bought himself a wooden upright and vowed to crank out
scales and chord progressions every day at his home in Richmond, California.
But as Doctor Hagler embarked on his self-teaching regimen, he encountered
an unexpected obstacle. "I lived close to a railway crossing, and
slow-moving freight trains would constantly be coming through," he says. The
blast of train horns was so deafening that he could scarcely concentrate or
hear the notes his fingers were striking. "And it wasn't just train horns,"
he says. "There were boom cars on the streets that were noisy beyond
Doctor Hagler's frustration set him thinking about the impact of excessive
noise on the world around him. If train noise stopped him from learning to
play piano, a relative luxury, what about children trying to learn in
schools next to fire stations, or singles trying to converse with future
spouses in bars blaring heavy metal music?
When Doctor Hagler began his in-depth research on noise (published last
spring in the Southern Medical Journal), he found that study after study
confirmed his worst suspicions: Excessive noise made people more violent and
aggressive, increased their risk of heart problems and sleep deficits,
decimated their productivity, and impaired their ability to learn. In short,
unwanted noise degraded almost every aspect of their lives.
But if noise is a blight on society, it's largely an ignored one, and Doctor
Hagler realizes this can make the political will for change elusive. Most
people don't think of loud sounds as harmful. Rock concerts and demolition
derbies are embraced as exciting; noise is viewed as a backdrop of life with
no consequences for mental or physical health. It is an awareness gap that
Doctor Hagler and other anti-noise crusaders are now trying to close. "In
1964, the Surgeon General came out and said smoking was bad, but it took
years for people to do anything about it," he says. "Now we know secondhand
noise is as bad for us as secondhand smoke."
Noise and Violence
Two years ago, Nashid Muhammad shot Ronnie Rose in the parking lot of a
Cincinnati, Ohio, gas station after a dispute involving loud music from
Muhammad's car stereo. When Rose asked Muhammad to turn down the stereo, the
two began arguing. Rose shut the car door on Muhammad's leg, and Muhammad
responded by shooting him twice in the chest. Rose died almost immediately.
Would the confrontation ever have escalated if Muhammad had kept his music
turned down? It's impossible to say for sure, but studies linking noise and
aggression suggest skirmishes like this are far from coincidental. Russell
G. Geen and Eugene McCown, psychologists at the University of Missouri,
exposed male subjects to loud and unpleasant noises, then allowed them to
give other subjects electrical shocks. The participants exposed to
uncontrollable noise gave their partners shocks that were unusually long in
duration. This indicated that the noise had raised their aggressive hackles,
making them more prone to lash out at others.
Reactions like these don't surprise Ron Czapala, head of Kentucky's chapter
of Noise Free America. "Having to put up with boom cars and loud mufflers
every day can make you a little crazy," Czapala says. "There's an increasing
number of people becoming violent as a result of excessive noise." New
reports of noise-induced foul play hit Czapala's inbox almost every day.
Stuart Holt of Lancashire, England, was recently stabbed after leaving the
volume on his stereo system cranked up for hours on end. Prince Ernst-August
of Hanover, husband of Monaco's Princess Caroline, beat the owner of a
nightclub in Kenya because he was so enraged by the loud music blaring from
Our evolutionary roots may make us prone to respond violently to excessive
noise. Whenever we're presented with an impulse we see as threatening, our
immediate instinct is to retaliate. "The body reacts to noise with a 'fight
or flight' response," Doctor Hagler says. In other words, we're genetically
primed to react to weed whackers and backyard boom boxes the same way we
would to robbers or wild animal intruders.
Noise and Well-being
Anger is just one facet of the noise-induced "fight or flight" response.
When a glass unexpectedly shatters or a Vespa screeches by, our bodies
respond with an array of hormonal, nervous, and vascular changes. Blood
pressure and heart rate peak, arteries and veins constrict, and levels of
stress-related hormones like epinephrine and cortisol spike.
When we experience these physiological changes repeatedly over long periods,
our health can suffer. Stefan Willich, an epidemiologist at Berlin's Charite
University Medical Center, found that people exposed to chronic noise were
more likely to have heart attacks. He interviewed more than 2,000 heart
attack survivors from thirty-two Berlin hospitals and asked them to rate
their exposure to noise over the course of recent years, then compared their
histories with those of non-heart attack sufferers. Male patients exposed to
excessive environmental noise had a 50 percent increased risk of heart
attack, and female patients who fit the same description had a 300 percent
increased risk. The risk was greatest for people who regularly experienced
noise above the sixty-decibel threshold-about the level of background noise
in a busy mid-sized office.
Some researchers believe that noise can produce social and behavioral
consequences, a fact they are still trying to test and quantify. No direct
association between noise and mental illness has yet been found; because
psychiatric conditions are the result of genetic and environmental factors
operating in concert, analyzing each case to determine what role noise might
have played is a tall order. Still, a number of population studies have
shown that people living in noisy areas tend to report lower levels of
well-being, take more psychoactive drugs, and experience more sleep
disturbances. All of these factors could put them at risk of developing
Excessive noise can adversely affect happiness and productivity even if
listeners don't end up in mental hospitals. A steady background thrum-like
the drone of riveters at a construction site or the thunder of planes
overhead-can put those experiencing the racket on edge and distract them
from their daily responsibilities. Arline Bronzaft, a professor emeritus of
psychology at Lehman College, helps field 350,000 noise-related complaints
per year as chair of the noise committee of New York City's Council on the
Environment. "When I take calls, I often have to calm people down because
they're so distressed and angry about what's going on," she says. Gary
Evans, an environmental psychologist at Cornell University, found that
workers in noisy surroundings made forty-four percent fewer attempts to
solve difficult puzzles than their counterparts in quiet offices. This may
be because ever-present noise generates psychological stress that dampens
motivation and scuttles the focus needed to finish a task.
Noise and Learning
Whenever she watched her grandson play, Bronzaft grew more certain that
neighborhood noise was nipping his learning and concentration skills in the
bud. "The family lived near La Guardia airport, and every time a plane came
by, he'd hold his ears," she says. "Every plane stopped him from what he was
doing." When the perceived threat had passed, he'd go back to his toys and
books. But he remained ultra-sensitive to outside stimuli, as though decibel
bombardment had made him overly vigilant.
Bronzaft established a broader correlation between noise and learning
problems when she and colleague Dennis McCarthy tested the reading ability
of two groups of children at New York's Public School 88. One group of
students was assigned to classrooms on the "quiet side" of the building, and
the other group was on the "noisy side," where elevated trains whizzed by
every four minutes. "By the sixth grade, kids on the noisy side of the
school were about a year behind in reading," Bronzaft says. "When the trains
went by, they were so loud that the teachers actually had to stop teaching."
Like Bronzaft's grandson, the students would take several minutes to regain
their focus after such an intrusion, resulting in thousands of lost minutes
of instructional time each year.
Dozens of studies in classrooms all over the world have since confirmed
Bronzaft's theory that noise intrudes on children's learning. Gary Evans, a
professor of design and human development at Cornell University, recently
uncovered one possible explanation for these detrimental effects. He found
that children in noisy classrooms typically responded to the racket by
tuning out speech in addition to other, less relevant, sources of sound.
When children become used to noise, Evans explains, they don't just tune out
the sound of cars and airplanes-they tune out everything else as well, which
affects their reading and language development.
Bronzaft's story had a happy ending. She was able to persuade New York
transit authorities to install rubber pads on train tracks near the school
to cushion some of the noise, and school officials also approved the
construction of acoustical ceilings in the noisiest classrooms. "The
classrooms were six to eight decibels quieter after that," she says.
"Eventually, both sides of the school had the same reading scores." But she
worries about all the schools nationwide that aren't taking precautions to
protect students from noise. "Children need to learn to sit back, think, and
reflect in order to have new ideas. To get that result, you have to foster
WhatAre the Solutions?
Doctor Hagler describes noise as an "unwanted airborne pollutant," and
though that description would strike many Americans as too strident,
officials in many European Union countries agree with his assessment. The EU
has seized the initiative in developing a governmental plan to combat noise,
mandating that all European cities with populations over 250,000 assemble
digital maps spotlighting where environmental noise is worst. After these
hot spots are identified, local authorities will be better able to implement
anti-noise measures like diverting train and automobile traffic away from
schools and residential areas.
The U.S. government has shown no signs of following suit. Though the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency boasted an Office of Noise Abatement and
Control back in the 1970s, it was shut down two decades ago for lack of
funding. Though EPA spokesman John Millet admits it's hard to argue with
research that demonstrates noise's impact on physical and mental health, he
fears funding for national noise-control measures will not be forthcoming
unless the public demands them.
That's the crux of the problem, according to Doctor Hagler. Most people
aren't aware of noise's detrimental effects, so they're not inclined to
demand change-they'd rather see government funds going to solve other
problems that are seen as more pressing. "We have a history in this country
of being slow to recognize health effects, and once we recognize them, we
are slow to respond," he says. "The lightbulbs will go on slowly. There's
not going to be a quick fix." And it's a mistake to expect boombox and
motorcycle owners to have an innate sense of civic responsibility, he adds.
"We no longer live in a society where good manners count, where being
thoughtful is automatic-it's an I-Me-Mine-Now way of looking at life. But we
all own the air, and none of us has the right to ruin it for anyone else."
Since the federal government isn't likely to budge on the noise issue
anytime soon, anti-noise crusaders may end up tallying their most
significant victories at the local level for the foreseeable future. After
New York City received a record number of noise complaints in 2006, for
instance, mayor Michael Bloomberg passed a new noise code that placed
specific restrictions on noisy stereos, air conditioners, and car alarms.
Doctor Hagler's battle against excessive noise in Richmond was successful
from a legislative point of view. He and other concerned citizens persuaded
the town government to pass an ordinance stating that train horns would not
be used in the area if other safety precautions were taken. But it was a
Pyrrhic victory. Long before the law was passed, Doctor Hagler got so fed up
with the constant noisy blasts that he and his wife moved to a quieter
neighborhood in the Oakland Hills. "You still hear the kids coming out of
school, and occasionally, you get motorcycles screaming down the road with
after-market pipes," he says. "But things are much better." He's even
starting to regain his enthusiasm for learning to play the piano.
I believe it! Even a small, continuous noise can cause stress.
My department at work was a fairly quiet place with a computer in every cubicle and the a/c on for most of the day. It would usually shut off right around 4pm and, even though we weren't really aware of it having been on, all day, once it went off there was a collective sigh of relief. The few times the power went off and all of the PCs went quiet, the silence almost hurt and the air itself seemed lighter.
That sort of environment, day after day, year after year, can't be good.