ILLUSTRATION BY RYAN PELTIER
As soon as the door slams, I slide to the floor in a cross-legged position and hold my breath. The room in which I have just barricaded myself looks a bit like Matilda’s chokey; a single light bulb casts a sickly yellow glow about the room, its walls lined with triangle-shaped chunks of fiberglass straining against wire mesh. In 15 minutes I will leave this room for the cacophonous world of Manhattan. I should, theoretically, be appreciating this small respite for what it is. Even so, with every second, I feel as if I’m going deeper underwater.
I am sitting in an anechoic chamber, the only one in New York City. Nestled in the hip, angled building of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, the anechoic chamber is where acoustics students, headed by the aptly-named Melody Baglione, conduct research—it’s the equivalent of a zero-gravity chamber, only in this case, the variable is sound. The room is designed to be as noise-free as possible; its chunky walls completely absorb reflections of sound waves, and insulate the space within from all exterior sources of noise. While the chamber is not exactly silent, per se—at 20 decibels, the ambient noise level is quieter than a whisper, but twice as loud as a pin drop— it’s almost certainly the quietest space in New York.
And the silence, as they say, is deafening. Sitting in here, it’s as if someone has turned the volume up inside of my head. I helplessly observe my mind as thoughts careen across it, stop in the middle and, after a brief, flailing, Wile E. Coyote-esque interval, plummet into the abyss. Desperate for distraction, I check my phone, crack my knuckles, make tiny coughing sounds. Each tiny rupture of quiet attains such specialness, such texture, you can practically touch it. It takes tremendous effort to be silent: yet that’s what I’m here to be. In a futile, self-defeating moment, I try to force myself to un-tense. “Just relax!” I scold myself. I am in what you might call a state of withdrawal: and, like it must be when withdrawing from anything at first, sobriety is deeply uncomfortable.
What am I detoxing from? Noise. I live in the East Village, which is very noisy—illegally noisy. Last year, Jackie Le and Matthew Palmer, acoustics engineering students at Cooper Union, decided to investigate the noise levels of the area near their school for their senior project. Le and Palmer went to various apartments around this neighborhood and, using a decibel meter, calculated the average level of volume coming in through the open windows of multiple apartments, and compared them with “safe” levels defined by New York City’s recently-revised noise code. “In every instance, we found the noise coming into these people’s apartments was above code,” Le says.
If noise is a drug, then it’s a performance drug.
I can vouch for this. I’ve spent this whole year telling anyone who will listen that the hundreds of nights I’ve spent trying to fall asleep in my apartment constitute a Sisyphean Hell of endurance: the iterating, irritating garbage trucks, the construction that starts at promptly 6 a.m. and continues into evening. I make a lot of noise about the noise, and I’m not the only one. Noise is the single greatest quality-of-life complaint New Yorkers have (we lodged 18,000 phone complaints with the Department of Environmental Protection last July alone). We all love to hate the noise. And yet sitting in silence, I do not feel as if I’ve found an escape from pain: I have simply traded it for a new variety. Shockingly, I realize I want to trade back.
In this city of complainers, who could admit to loving something so easy to complain about? Lewis Black, a comedian, couches his praise of noise in a cynical one-liner, noting dryly, “The reason I live in New York City is because it’s the loudest city on the planet Earth. It’s so loud I never have to listen to any of the shit that’s going on in my own head.”
Black might be on to something. Noise can cause us distress and pain, but it can also help us think, perceive, remember, and be more creative. It turns out that it’s even necessary for our physiological and mental functioning. If it’s a drug, then it’s a performance drug. And New York is full of addicts.
Though it’s counterintuitive, numerous experiments have demonstrated that the addition of noise can actually improve signal detection. This phenomenon, known as stochastic resonance, was first developed to describe the periodic nature of glacial climate change, and is thought to occur across many nonlinear dynamic systems—including the human brain…