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'In Pursuit of Silence': the film that says we need more quiet in our lives

Three minutes into a preview screening of In Pursuit of Silence, a new film about the impact of noise on our lives, a member of the audience shouted out: “What about the sound?!” The producers groaned, but the interruption perfectly proved the film’s contention: that the balance of noise and silence in our lives has fallen drastically out of sync.

We’re so used to ubiquitous sound that even a couple of minutes of quiet feels unnatural. To spell this out, director Patrick Shen deliberately opened his film with near-silence: four minutes and 33 seconds of it, to be precise, in honour of John Cage’s experimental composition 4’33”, in which performers sit in silence for that length of time. When Cage’s piece first debuted in New York in 1952, the audience went mad. They just didn’t know what they were supposed to make of all that quiet.

Sixty-four years on, silence – even quiet – is harder to find than ever. But a movement to bring it back into our lives is gathering momentum. For those who campaign for quiet, In Pursuit of Silence is the (very soft) alarm bell that could finally bring their fight into mainstream consciousness.

The film is by no means silent the whole way through. To encourage audiences to focus on what they’re hearing, Shen combines 30-second-long static camera shots of scenes and their sounds – a tree in a field, a petrol station at night, a motorway – with interviews with people involved in the consideration of sound and silence all over the world, whether academics, monks or audiologists. It features Greg Hindy, a Yale graduate from New Hampshire, who took a vow of silence and walked across the United States for a year in an attempt to get away from the distractions of noise “embedded in electronics and entertainment”. It takes us inside the anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minnesota, one of the quietest places on Earth, where the Guinness World Records team recorded a background noise level of –9.4 decibels.

The result is a film that is both calming and jarring to watch. In one particularly effective sequence, Shen films hundreds of workers in the City of London’s Lloyd’s Building, standing still to observe the Remembrance Day two-minute silence. The absence of noise and movement makes the scene look almost unreal, as if we’re watching a photograph instead of a video. Then the bell tolls to mark the end of the silence and the picture is instantly broken, all the sound we’re used to living with flooding back in.

Shen thinks his film, which took four years to make, has the power to change people’s lives. “I hope that the film challenges audiences to slow down and on some level make the world new again for them.” Positive early reviews suggest it is having exactly that effect.

But why exactly do we need more silence in our lives?

How noisy are we now?

A new exhibition at the Churchill War Rooms in London reveals that during the Second World War, Winston Churchill imported special “noiseless typewriters” for staff after finding the racket of regular machines too irritating to bear. The Prime Minister also had a sign erected in the corridors: “There is to be no whistling or unnecessary noise in this passage.”

Churchill was not the only one ahead of his time on the subject. In 1959 the businessman John Connell wrote a letter to the Telegraph to complain about “terrible excessive noise”. “Ninety per cent of noise is preventable,” he insisted. More than 4,000 readers replied in agreement and Connell then formed the Noise Abatement Society, successfully lobbying Parliament to introduce the Noise Abatement Act in 1960, establishing noise as a statutory nuisance for the first time.

If Connell and Churchill were around today, they’d be disappointed. According to the latest Noise Attitudes Survey by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2012, 48 per cent of people in the UK felt their home life was spoilt to some extent by noise. From 2000-12, noise moved up from ninth to fourth place in a list of 12 environmental problems when respondents were asked which affected them most.

Local councils receive half a million noise complaints every year and the majority relate to other people, says the advice service Noise Nuisance – although this could be because they feel human noise is an irritation they are more likely to be able to control than, say, road noise. Less than one complaint in 100 currently leads to enforcement action.

Noise from the skies has become the background track to our existence: only a small proportion of the world is now not flown over by planes. More than 270,000 people live inside the Heathrow Airport daytime “noise contour” of 57 dBA, a sound threshold above which the Department for Transport estimates that “significant community annoyance” begins. A normal human conversation takes place at around 50-60 dBA. Anything higher requires raising your voice.

Road noise is often significantly louder. According to Defra’s noise maps, most main streets in British cities routinely record more than 70 decibels during the daytime: this is the level above which the US Environment Agency defines a noise as “excessive” and therefore potentially harmful. According to the World Health Organisation, eight million people across Europe suffer sleep deprivation because of traffic noise. One statistic from an EU noise-mapping project estimated that a single noisy scooter driven through Paris in the middle of the night could wake up as many as 200,000 people.

Few day-to-day experiences are devoid of noise. Tube trains on the London Underground regularly average 100 dBA; pubs typically record 65-70 dBA during quiet periods, rising to up to 88 dBA when busy. In restaurants, too, sound levels can be as high as 85 dBA. A recent survey of 1,500 people by Action on Hearing Loss showed that 79 per cent had left a meal early because of the noise in the room.

Whether we notice it or not, nearly all of us exist in noise nearly all of the time.

What’s wrong with a noisy world?

Beyond the general annoyance, it turns out our ear-splitting existence is having far-reaching effects on our bodies. “All of our physical rhythms are being affected by sound outside us all the time,” explains Julian Treasure, a self-confessed “sound evangelist” and chairman of The Sound Agency, which helps companies improve the way they sound. Noise affects our bodies in four different ways, he explains in the film.

1. Physiologically

Sudden noises cause the body to produce a little shot of cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone. This happens a lot in cities. Sounds such as waves gently lapping at the shore, meanwhile, have a calming effect.

2. Psychologically

Sounds can change your mood – imagine how you feel listening to a favourite piece of music, or birdsong, compared with loud unwelcome sounds. “If you’re surrounded by noise all the time it has a pretty bad effect on the spirit,” says Treasure. “I’ve heard many reports of police attending scenes of domestic violence where they’ve had to turn off music and televisions and radios. Noise tends to drive us a bit crazy.”

3. Cognitively

The brain has a huge storage space but the auditory input channel is relatively limited in its bandwidth, to roughly 1.6 human conversations, says Treasure. This is the reason you can’t understand two people talking at the same time.

4. Behaviourally

We tend to move away from sounds we don’t like and towards sounds we do. In a recent experiment at the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham, speakers playing loud pop music were set up at one end and calming, ambient music was played at the other. The results showed that many shoppers physically moved away from the pop music speakers.

Our sensitivity to sound, then, combined with its largely unregulated presence in our lives, means that our cacophonic world has a profound effect on our wellbeing. The World Health Organisation describes noise pollution as a “major public environmental health burden, second only to air pollution”.

Noise badly affects concentration, for one thing. It has been shown that children studying in schools under flight paths have reading skills many months behind their peers in quieter places, simply because they can’t hear so well.

The impact of noise is also particularly evident in hospitals, where doctors regularly have to make crucial decisions while surrounded by auditory chaos. Dr Paul Barach, senior medical scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Dept of Research and Evaluation in California, says in In Pursuit of Silence: “We see very clearly anxiety, delays in decision-making, errors in receiving information, errors in transmitting information, errors in calculations of medication dosages and a whole series of other downstream problems because of confusion caused by the overall external noise.”

Noise puts people in hospital, too. Dr Stephen Stansfeld, professor of psychiatry at Queen Mary University of London, says recent research links serious health problems to noise. “Hypertension, high blood pressure – and even, more recently, there is a very convincing effect of particularly transport noise, road traffic noise, on a risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and even death from noise.”

Although we might think we’re used to noise, we’re actually just coping with it. Underneath, our bodies never stop resisting, which causes persistent stress and strain.

Why is silence good for us?

As you might expect, the opposite of noise provides a solution to many of these problems. Even if we aren’t talking absolute silence – something near impossible to find – scientists are starting to prove that time spent in the quiet is beneficial to both body and mind.

1. Silence is calming

In a round-up of studies on silence for the American science magazine Nautilus, David Gross notes that the doctor Luciano Bernardi, while studying the psychological effects of music in 2006, found that his subjects were most relaxed during the silences played between pieces of music, as opposed to during the “relaxing” music itself.

2. Silence is good for the brain

Silence may even help to grow the brain. In 2013, the biologist Imke Kirst conducted an experiment in which she exposed four groups of adult mice either to various sounds or to silence to find out which, if any, prompted the growth of new brain cells.

Contrary to what she expected, the mice that were exposed to silence were the only group that developed new cells, and they grew in the part of the brain connected to memory, emotion and learning. Kirst’s results are yet to be corroborated in people but quiet campaigners hope they may herald a new dawn in experiments on silence, and may even one day offer hope for those suffering degenerative conditions such as dementia.

3. Silence increases productivity

On an anecdotal level people have always known the value of good old peace and quiet – but we may have forgotten just how essential it is. Poppy Szkiler, founder of Quiet Mark, a UK company that awards a badge of “quality” to brands that meet particular sound requirements, and granddaughter of John Connell, describes feeling a “deep recharge” whenever she builds a few quiet moments into her day. Living in London, what she hears during “quiet time” in her kitchen or garden is rarely silence – but it still helps. “If I don’t get it I’m a different person. People under a lot of stress often become edgy and irritable, but somehow quiet time softens all your edges.

“There is a deep wonder in silence and quietness and when you start to experience it, it becomes the thing you want to run to find because in it you feel topped up, inspired. You get genius ideas out of nowhere that make the rest of the day go well.”

This could be because sitting in quiet, without noise or stimuli to distract us, helps to activate the brain’s “default mode”, scientists say. In this mode we are able to think and reflect more deeply, tapping into emotions and ideas otherwise unavailable to us.

The silent movement – and how to get more silence in your life

In Pursuit of Silence is the first major film to be made about noise pollution – and for those who have been calling for a quiet revolution for years, it’s a much-needed step towards a more sound-balanced world.

Change is already starting to happen, particularly in the consumer area. Johnathan Marsh, buying director at John Lewis, says their stores have noticed a spike in demand for quiet appliances. Forty-nine per cent of people in Britain considered sound an important factor when buying a home appliance, John Lewis found, rising to 62 per cent among those with an open-plan kitchen, sitting room or dining room. Washing machines, dishwashers and cooker extractor fans were some of the worst sound offenders.

In response, since 2014 John Lewis has made a concerted effort to stock products that have been awarded the Quiet Mark logo, meaning they have passed rigorous testing controls that take both sound level and sound quality into account. Customers have responded well: Quiet Mark sales are up 33 per cent. “Customers are prepared to prioritise quiet to a degree where they might switch from one brand to another to achieve it, or even pay more for a product which is guaranteed to be quieter,” says Marsh.

Innovation in this area is proceeding quickly. Dyson spent £50?million developing a quieter hairdryer, while at the other end of the spectrum Virgin Atlantic has invested in $8?billion worth of Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner aeroplanes that boast a “noise footprint” around 60 per cent smaller than those of similarly sized aircraft.

Store managers, too, are starting to take “audio branding” more seriously. Marks & Spencer axed background music in 300 of its stores this summer after complaints by staff and customers, and Julian Treasure, who advises shopping centres on their sound policies, says he has seen sales rise 10 per cent in response to more people-friendly “soundscaping”.

In Pursuit of Silence goes far beyond these developments, painting a vision of a future in which buildings, road networks and even entire cities could be built with auditory impact in mind. “In the UK architects train for five years and they spend one day on sound,” says Treasure. “It’s no wonder [buildings are] entirely ocular.” But imagine a world in which houses and offices were built with soundproofed walls as a matter of course; in which every café or pub contained pods that deflected noise; in which televisions and radios could be heard only by those sitting directly in a targeted sound sphere, which could be adjusted as desired. Instead of bleeding everywhere, sound could be controlled to our personal preferences – and silent “recharging” havens could be as easy to find on every street corner as a coffee shop.

Is this realistic – or even necessarily desirable – in our modern world? Perhaps not everyone would consider it so. But silence used to be something essential to our survival. With the loss of it to constant noise, we may perhaps be losing part of what makes us human, too.

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