By Jenni Russell in THE TIMES, 21 May 2020
One of the great compensations of lockdown is hearing less noise, at least of the external, ungovernable kind. One’s own children at home, quarrelling or competing, is another matter. At least one can shout back at them. Everywhere people are marvelling at hearing the complexity of birdsong, the peacefulness of streets with so little traffic, the pleasure of walking in parks without aircraft rumbling overhead.
The drop in noise is so marked that it has been picked up by the British Geological Survey as a dramatic fall in ground vibrations. The planet itself is quieter because we are. At the end of last month they reported that the noise generated by our daily lives at 100 measuring stations had dropped by between 20 and 50 per cent.
The falls were greatest near railway stations, airports, big roads and construction sites. A seismometer near King’s Cross station in London recorded a 30 per cent fall; even Twickenham is down 25 per cent. The same pattern is being seen across the world. Brussels’s noise has fallen by a third, and Germany’s car traffic is down by 50 per cent.
This is a remarkable, temporary liberation from one of the greatest and least considered sources of stress in our lives. Most of us are battered by noise every day but it is worst for those who live in towns and cities, or who travel to them.
The imposition of noise and the level of it has risen sharply over the past 40 years. It is not just more planes, more cars, and more construction, but the rise of amplified sound in almost every private and public space, from the piped music in shops, bars and restaurants to the interminable, ear-splitting, repetitive announcements on buses and trains, the thudding from car radios, boom boxes or a passenger’s headphones, the inflicting of a neighbour’s party music at midnight on everyone a few hundred metres away.
We feel impotent in the face of this onslaught. Rising noise feels like an unavoidable fact of life, one that we care deeply about but cannot influence. More than a third of people dislike piped music; fewer than a third like it. This year the organisation Action on Hearing Loss found that 80 per cent had cut short their visits to a pub or restaurant because of noise.
A 2014 survey found that in a typical year more residents complain to their local councils about noise than about any other issue. They are right to care. Noise is not something we should shrug off as an intrusion we must learn to live with or be more tolerant of. It is destructive both for our bodies and for our minds.
Our understanding of the damage it causes is accumulating with every new piece of research. In February Joshua Dean from the University of Chicago found that noise is an undetected performance killer, undermining the brain’s ability to focus. When the same task was given to 128 workmen to perform against different noise levels, a slight increase in noise, of just 10db — the equivalent of a vacuum cleaner rather than a dishwasher — reduced productivity by 5 per cent. The workers were quite unaware of this, as noise affected their cognition rather than their effort.
As Dean points out, there are several significant aspects to this. Companies are always desperate to push up productivity, which in Britain has scarcely risen in a decade. A 5 per cent difference in performance is dramatic. Just for context, British productivity has increased by a miserly 0.3 per cent a year for the past ten years, down from 2 per cent annually in the decade before.
The findings have implications for every job performed against high noise. Anyone who must take in multiple sources of information and focus, from a factory foreman to a traffic policeman, will function less well than they should.
Our minds may try to accept noise; physiologically, our bodies cannot. It affects our hearts, blood pressure, our chances of stroke. Last autumn the European Heart Journal showed how long-term exposure to traffic and aircraft noise increases heart disease. A five-year study of 500 adults found that for every 5db increase in average noise over 24 hours, there was a 34 per cent increase in heart attacks and strokes.
Brain imaging exposed the mechanism. Higher noise levels triggered activity in the amygdala, which processes stress and fear, and increased arterial inflammation. Other studies have shown that even noise we are unaware of, heard during sleep, raises adrenaline and cortisol and disturbs our rest.
In America, a 2018 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found higher rates of hypertension and high cholesterol in those exposed to loud noise at work. In a German study, people vexed by noise had a higher risk of having their hearts thrown out of rhythm by atrial fibrillation.
As a killer and a pollutant, noise has never grabbed public attention in the way climate change and environmental pollution have. Perhaps that’s because its effects are, paradoxically, silent and hard to see, except individually, in our racing hearts. The government officially considers noise “an inevitable consequence of a mature and vibrant society”. We all want jobs and prosperity but now that we have glimpsed the effects of greater peace this shouldn’t happen just as before.
Let’s campaign for more bicycles, quieter road surfaces, lower speeds, fewer planes, minimal announcements, restrictions on the construction hours the government has just, mistakenly, extended. It’s what our hearts and minds not only want but cannot flourish without.