Archive for the 'Other' Category

An Experiment in Silence

WP_20140522_14_29_57_ProLike most people, I love the Internet. I do not watch television, listen to much radio, play games or buy that many records. Everything I need is provided by my tablet via WiFi and I have control over almost all the media content I consume. You often hear concerns about the amount of media junk people accept into their lives. Television’s passivating influence has long been an issue, but now that people have a much bigger say in what they consume, these concerns have naturally changed. People seek out harmful entertainment, spend too much time in virtual worlds and social media, play games that may have a bad influence on them, watch too much porn, and so on. The new controversies are interesting, but there is another issue that should be considered. Unless I am mistaken, most of the concerns deal with visual media and very rarely does anyone think about what we allow into our ears. That is why I have decided to conduct an experiment by giving up aural media for two weeks.

It may sound a bit gimmicky, but there is a reason for focusing on sound. I have always been sensitive to noise. Loud sounds have always made me anxious. They have even triggered migraine attacks. I have played in rock bands for much of my life, but the sound of a band is a different thing altogether. It is directed, coherent and wraps around you like a warm blanket. Incoherent noise is simply impossible to process in the same way. There is no meaning to the latter and its shapelessness is a source of great discomfort to me. Riding the tube, for example, can be absolutely terrifying. But volume is not everything. There is also a different kind of noise that produces nearly the same effect, which I have termed semantic garbage. A conversation taking place in the background while waiting in line or riding a bus, for example, can be disquieting even at low volumes. A radio playing in the background can produce a similar effect. The two together with the sound of the wheels can create an unbearable cacophony. Again, the brain gets going and tries to dig meaning out of the noise and soon exhausts itself. I envy people who can drown these things out, because I am obviously very bad at it.

Luckily my friends and loved ones have accepted my odd impairment and I have discovered ways of getting around these issues. One of these is to use noise-cancelling headphones. On the tube, I put them on and they enable me to behave like a normal person and have conversations. When I walk around London, a very noisy city, I rarely go without them. Sometimes I have nothing playing through them and just use the noise-cancelling function to block out sound. It may be strange, but quite a lot of people have headphones on walking around town, so it does not look strange at all. Wearing these things a lot, I have picked up the habit of listening to audiobooks almost all the time while commuting or walking around. This combined with the fact that I listen to online content all the time while at the office or at home means that I am constantly submerged in either music, YouTube babble, books or films.

The volume is never high and I am not afraid all this will affect my hearing. Rather, I am concerned that the constant noise that I use to block out noise might be exhausting my cognitive faculties and fuzzying up my brain in other ways. I also feel I might be hooked. When a moment of silence creeps up on me, I feel anxious. This frightens me a little, so why not take the plunge and try to see how deep the rabbit hole goes. The rules are as follows: I will mute music, films, TV and YouTube series, audiobooks and other media for at least two weeks. Noise-cancelling headphones are still a necessity, because they enhance silence, which is after all the whole point. For anyone interested in following this little experiment, I will keep a log of it on this blog and on Twitter. Let us see and listen what happens.

Descriptions of Migraines

The Guardian published an interesting description of one person’s migraine attacks. She describes them as wrinkles in reality and after reading about them it seems clear why migraines are often linked to a kind of epileptic madness. For a fellow migraineur, a term she uses in the article, the descriptions of the episodes are fascinating, because they do make a great deal of sense of it all. The terms are hardly clinical, but it’s impossible to describe phenomena that stretch the ways reality presents itself to you with objective prose:

I’m writing now through day four of this month’s headache, one that began (as do many) with a flickering blind spot in the centre of my vision. It starts small, a spinning black penny in the middle of a page. I slump in my seat as it spreads darkly over my sight like jam, and I can’t see, or think, or entirely understand speech. It’s the film melting in my projector — it’s a bit like falling. Smells slay me. Noise, fine, but smells — Angel perfume in a lift, for instance, or that dirty spitting rain you get in cities, the kind that smells of apocalypse — will make me retch. And minutes later the headache comes.

She mentions the “Alice in Wonderland syndrome” that accompanies the attack. The body or parts of it seem oddly out of proportion. Figure-ground relations become blurred. Synaesthesia occurs. Some time before the pain sets in your surroundings are suddenly pregnant with meaning. Intense déjà vu makes the world familiar and strange at the same time. Semantic processing flickers on and off. In short, it’s like a trip on your favorite psychedelic, but with intense pain.

My own experiences are fairly similar. The headache I usually take care of with aspirin. I have tried other painkillers, but the aspirin seems to do the job. Nausea, madness and other symptoms can’t really be fixed anyway, so I simply take the edge off and spend the next few hours in a dark room. The senses remain heightened and most sounds, all distinct smells and bright light are unmanageable. The same goes for what I’ve come to call semantic garbage, unorganized loud sensations of any kind. These have in the past even triggered migraine attacks.

It sounds odd — as if madness should make sense — but I once found that listening to John Coltrane actually eased the pain merely because his playing floated somewhere beyond the rigid structures of musical harmony and rhythm. During another episode, the Spanish language was soothing. Both of these experiences, which I confess might have been given greater significance than they actually deserve due to the trippyness of it all, involved not just the perception of raw sounds, volume and timbre, but the way the information was structured. For some reason, it was this abstract beauty that gave me pleasure and relief. Perhaps it’s finally a matter of aesthetics — choppy information is as ugly as unorganized noise and both hurt the senses.

As the Guardian migraineur points out, the fact is that there is some pleasure to be had from migraine attacks if they are manageable. I know at least one person whose headaches are so bad that she would never agree to this, but I’m fairly sure those who can cope with theirs would. The way the brain goes nuts, for one thing, is a great thrill. The first migraine the Guardian writer describes made her forget how to read. That, however disconcerting, is a very strange experience that punctures a hole in your mundane existence and I would think any person who experiences something like that lives in a much more interesting world than those who don’t. There is also the pleasure that follows the attack, which for me is a pleasant fuzzy hangover. Having said all that, I don’t look forward to the next time.