Right to Quiet Society Noiseletter
Spring 2015, page 4

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How "learned deafness" might be letting noise pollution win

The world may be noisier than ever but one scientist warns that our attempts to blot out the sound may cost us dearly

By Laura Clark

There’s nothing quite like the gentle sounds of birds chirping, bugs buzzing or rain drops pattering over a canopy of leaves. But these days, such seemingly mundane noise can be hard to come by. There are car horns and airplane engines, the whir of machinery and the electric hum of power lines. A new map compiled by researchers at the National Parks Service has shown just how difficult it’s gotten to secure a slice of silence. Depicting high back­ground noise levels in yellow and low levels in blue, the map consists of data collected over 1.5 million hours of acoustic monitoring from all over the country. Unsurpris­ingly, urban areas are the noisiest, while those questing for quiet can find it on pre-­European colonization levels in large swaths of the west.

But one scientist is now warning that all that sound and our efforts to avoid it might actually be allowing noise pol­lution to get worse and could cause a phenomenon he’s calling "learned deafness". To control the sounds in our own personal worlds, we might resort, for instance, to wearing headphones that blare our favourite music in our ears. (It can make the day nicer, not having to listen to that bus chug by or the cabbie screaming out his win­dow.) Or we might just close our ears off and ignore the auditory stimuli of the world around us.

Kurt Fristrup, a senior scientist at the U.S. National Park Service, spoke this week to a group of scientists about the country’s rising level of background noise and the resulting tune­-out of natural sounds, the Guardian reports. "This learned deafness is a real issue. We are condition­ing ourselves to ignore the information coming into our ears," he said.

"There is a real danger, both of loss of auditory acuity, where we are exposed to noise for so long that we stop listening, but also a loss of listening habits, where we lose the ability to engage with the en­vironment the way we were built to," he added.

Fristrup compared the problem to the effect fog would have on how you perceive a landscape. You see only a small portion of what’s in front of you. "Even in most of our cities there are birds and things to appreciate in the environment, and there can be very rich natural choruses to pay attention to. And that is being lost," he warned. Should we keep blotting out the noise pollution with music and noise ­cancelling headphones on an individual level, we risk allowing the wider background noise to further crescendo. This could have a larger effect on the animals and insects that use sound to hunt and communicate, let alone drive all of us a little closer to crazy.

And here’s a good reason to turn down the music: Preliminary research presented at the same meeting shows that recordings of sounds from national parks likely have the power to help us more quickly recover from stressful events.

No one's sure exactly why this works, but, as the Guardian reports, researchers think there might be an ev­olutionary element at play. To our ancestors, the peaceful chatter of animals and bugs may have been an auditory indication of safety in the absence of predators. So, next time you reach for the iPod on your walk to work, consider straining for nature’s noise instead. It might just give you a little stress relief and could help maintain your ears’ ability to hear all that the wide world has to offer.

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Student takes silver in science for harnessing noise

By Amanda Richardson

A local Grade 12 student has made a big splash on the east coast for his science st Canada-­wide Science Fair. Usman Kamran, from Westwood Community High School, achievements at the 51 received a silver medal and a Manning Innovation Achievement Award for work on his project, The Acousto­-Thermal Effect, at the science fair that was held from May 12 to 18, 2014 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

Kamran’s project proved that heat, and ultimately electricity, can be generated by harnessing ambient noise’s sound­wave energy. Frustrated by the prevalence of noise pollution, but realising its potential as an energy source, Kamran worked to turn the nuisance into some­thing useful.

"Detailed experiments with acoustic absorbers have inspired suggestive proof of deadened acoustic heating," explained Kamran in a release.

"Not only is this pheno­menon detectable, but it can be harvested and utilised via the thermoelectric effect. Noting sound’s ubiquitous re­newable energy potential, this project introduces a novel method of exploiting one of the world’s most underutilised resources."

Kamran competed amongst approximately 500 other Canadian students in Grades 7 to 12 at the national com­petition. "Even at the rudimentary stage of these inno­vative approaches to either solve present­ day challenges, or identify potential and opportunity, these projects reflect the curiosity, passion and subsequent innovative re­search of young minds and epitomize the value and po­tential of problem ­solving creative thinking, which is what we encourage and applaud," said David B. Mitchell, pre­sident of the Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation.

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