Those menacing sounds of silence
For the inauguration speech of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un we handful of western professors teaching in Pyongyang at that time were shepherded to the event and seated on a huge balcony overlooking the huge Kim Il-Sung Square with its hundreds of thousands of participants. It was obviously important for the local TV-bosses to show that there were also foreigners, who were celebrating and honouring the new leader. The only problem was we were placed only a few metres away from the enormous loudspeakers and throughout the great new leader’s speech I kept my ears covered with my hands.
My ‘minders’ rebuked me and wanted me to take my hands off my ears, but the noise from the loudspeakers was deafening and I did not want to risk damaging my hearing. To the dismay of my ‘minders’, I refused to take my hands off my ears. I am quite certain the North Korean TV did not focus on me that time.
However, generally speaking I’m a person who likes to work with his radio on. Even now, while I type these lines music reaches my ears. In the morning I usually listen to classical music, for who likes to start the day with a pulsating beat, but in the evenings I always switch to pop, reggae, or rhythm and blues.
We all know that prolonged exposures to excessively loud sounds can damage our hearing, but what exactly does sound, or I had better specify, the absence of it does to our hearing system?
The role that the tiny muscles, which are attached to the middle ear-ossicles, play in protecting us against acoustic damage has still not been fully elucidated. What is clear, however, is that the decrease in hearing power due to intense noise is brought about by damage to the sensory cells of the cochlea in the inner ear. The more frequently the receptor cells are exposed to loud noise, the longer the recovery period becomes, until recovery is no longer possible (violinists usually hear less well in the ear that is closest to the instrument). It is said that high frequency sounds are more damaging, but I personally get more annoyed by the low frequency ‘boom, boom, boom’ of the bass, especially when nothing else but the bass or drum beat can be heard. This annoyance of unpleasant sounds goes hand in hand with reactions that are independent of our consciousness and indicative of an irritation of the sympathetic nervous system, affecting hormone levels, blood flow to the skin, and secretion of mucous. Furthermore, the pupil of the eye may become visibly dilated.
Strangely, during light sleep much fainter sounds than those experienced as disturbing during wakefulness, can produce physiological reactions identical to the loud sounds : the dripping tap, the snoring neighbour next door, or the ticking of a clock at night come to mind. Actually, under normal circumstances and in a healthy human, nerve impulses from the ear reach the brain all the time. We don’t take notice of this ‘traffic’ as long as it does not stop suddenly or the signal-flow has fallen to a disagreeably low level and the abrupt silence alarms us. It is quite normal not to perceive a certain background noise (20 – 60 dB) unless it is absent, and that very noise, which can be so loud that a resting person will find it annoying, is actually comforting us when we are awake.
Total silence can be very frightening and the excited chatter of the students before an exam and the fanfare before battle are expressions of the fear of silence. At this very moment I wonder if science is indeed ‘golden’ and whether I should say anything more, or had better just listen – remembering the Japanese proverb “Silence says more than a thousand words”.
© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2016.
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