Clamour, Cacophony

September 20, 2019

Silence is hard to come by in Central London. When I’m reading or writing, I need at a minimum earplugs, if not the kind of over-the-ear hearing protectors which builders wear. “35 dB — Protection against high noise levels in industrial settings,” they advertise. “Ideal for extreme noise levels, such as mining, airports, engine rooms, printing factories, cement machines.” Sometimes I even wear those over earplugs.

I can still hear the drilling.

There is that much construction where I live. Four of the tallest buildings in London now dwarf my neighbourhood. None of them were here when I moved in, a decade ago. Then-mayor Boris Johnson approved them in 2014, despite the fact that Islington Council had rejected them planning permission.

They now tower over my own seventeen-storey ex-council building, and from outward appearances some still stand empty, as there was some fear they might do, being bought as investments rather than places to live. But laments on this point have been disputed.

Whether they are occupied or not, the noise on this road drones inexplicably on. It is insufferable. Two of my flatmates moved out last week, to South London, citing construction as a primary reason.

This is not a new complaint. Schopenhauer wrote a whole delightfully spiteful chapter about noise in his Studies on Pessimism. It begins:

The superabundant display of vitality, which takes the form of knocking, hammering, and tumbling things about, has proved a daily torment to me all my life long. There are people, it is true — nay, a great many people — who smile at such things, because they are not sensitive to noise; but they are just the very people who are also not sensitive to argument, or thought, or poetry, or art, in a word, to any kind of intellectual influence. The reason of it is that the tissue of their brains is of a very rough and coarse quality. On the other hand, noise is a torture to intellectual people. In the biographies of almost all great writers, or wherever else their personal utterances are recorded, I find complaints about it; in the case of Kant, for instance, Goethe, Lichtenberg, Jean Paul; and if it should happen that any writer has omitted to express himself on the matter, it is only for want of an opportunity.

Though we are mercifully spared the cracking of whips which so troubled Schopenhauer, I think it is fair to say that the world is louder than it was in 1890. The WHO estimates 1.6 million disability-adjusted life years are lost each year due to environmental noise. A list of other studies suggests that depression and cardiovascular disease, even type 2 diabetes, correlate with noise levels. And London Councils receive more noise complaints than any other issue: over half a million in 2016.

Some people never learn to tune it out. That article introduced me to a new word: misophonia, which is an unusually strong aversion to noise, and says that the problem may even be genetic.

But I have found myself getting more sensitive to it, and have wondered whether the attempt to write more makes it worse. “It is not only an interruption, but also a disruption of thought,” wrote Schopenhauer. “Of course, where there is nothing to interrupt, noise will not be so particularly painful.” He might not be wrong, though my sensitivity seems to persist even when I’m not engaged in writing.

I have a theory about this. I wonder if creative endeavours and flow states, by reducing the activity of the default-mode network, might also reduce one’s defences against sensory inputs. If that’s true, then Schopenhauer could be correct that writing makes one more sensitive to noise. “No one with anything like an idea in his head can avoid a feeling of actual pain at this sudden, sharp crack, which paralyses the brain, rends the thread of reflection, and murders thought.”

Or perhaps this is just elitism, and a defence for the ornery side-effects of ordinary ageing.

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.