If we want it to fall silent, aren’t we yearning for the end of self?
September 3, 2013 7:09 PM   Subscribe

If perception of sound depends on our state of mind, then conversely a state of mind can hardly exist without an external world with which it is in relation and that conditions it — either our immediate present environment, or something that happened in the past and that now echoes or goes on happening in our minds. There is never any state of mind that is not in some part, however small, in relation to the sounds around it — the bird singing and a television overheard as I write this now, for example.

Silence, then, is always relative. Our experience of it is more interesting than the acoustic effect itself. And the most interesting kind of silence is that of a mind free of words, free of thoughts, free of language, a mental silence — the state of mind my character Cleaver failed to achieve despite his flight to the mountains. Arguably, when we have a perception of being tormented by noise, a lot of that noise is actually in our heads — the interminable fizz of anxious thoughts or the self-regarding monologue that for much of the time constitutes our consciousness. And it’s a noise in constant interaction with modern methods of so-called communication: the internet, the mobile phone, Google glasses. Our objection to noise in the outer world, very often, is that it makes it harder to focus on the buzz we produce for ourselves in our inner world.

When we think of silence, because we yearn for it perhaps, or because we’re scared of it — or both — we’re forced to recognise that what we’re talking about is actually a mental state, a question of consciousness. Though the external world no doubt exists, our perception of it is always very much our perception, and tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the world. There are times when a noise out there is truly irritating and has us yearning for peace. Yet there are times when we don’t notice it at all. When a book is good, the drone of a distant lawnmower is just not there. When the book is bad but we must read it for an exam, or a review, the sound assaults us ferociously.

Our desire for silence often has more to do with an inner silence than an outer. Or a combination of the two. Noise provokes our anger, or at least an engagement, and prevents inner silence. But absence of noise exposes us to the loud voice in our heads. This voice is constitutive of what we call self. If we want it to fall silent, aren’t we yearning for the end of self? For death, perhaps. So talk about silence becomes talk about consciousness, the nature of selfhood, and the modern dilemma in general: the desire to invest in the self and the desire for the end of the self.
posted by whyareyouatriangle (18 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
While he's making a tolerably coherent if not terribly original point, it's unfortunate that his use of "sound" as a catch-all for "stimulation" leads him to saying things that imply deaf people have no inner life.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:17 PM on September 3, 2013 [14 favorites]

I do not trust people who write about themselves with "our," "we," and us."

Speak for yourself.

I suggest the author investigate meditation and get back to "us."
posted by CrowGoat at 8:04 PM on September 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Something something tinnitus?
posted by lumensimus at 8:29 PM on September 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

What silence and meditation leaves us wondering, after we stand up, unexpectedly refreshed and well-disposed after an hour of stillness and silence, is whether there isn’t something deeply perverse in this culture of ours, even in its greatest achievements in narrative and art.

Satori seekers make me sick!
Those that find it are deluded.
The old gimlet on Vulture Mountain—laughable.
Over my shoulder flies the broken ladle.
— Kakua, 12c.
posted by Lorin at 8:32 PM on September 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Since I suffer from tinnitus and hyperacusis, (Previously) this sounds all too familiar. Oops no pun intended.

I recently attended a presentation on treatment of tinnitus and hyperacusis with this set of slides (PDF). It may be relevant here. There's a section starting on Page 49 about changing your negative reaction to sounds. It deals somewhat with related issues like misophonia, where you are involuntarily emotionally reactive to certain sounds, and not others of the same intensity. So it shows a slide about how we might perceive the same sound differently.

Our Thoughts and Emotions

Doorbell -> Neutral

Doorbell -> Fire, Injury, Angry neighbor -> Anxiety

Doorbell -> Flowers, Friend, Prize -> Happiness

It suggests trying to associate the noise you find unpleasant, with more pleasant reactions. The doctor suggested "habituating" to the sounds by finding a time when you are calm, get into a meditative state, and play a recording of the sounds you dislike while thinking happy thoughts of how you would react to them positively. Eventually you could react to that sound like it was a doorbell ring by the Publisher's Clearing House million dollar prize, and not your angry psycho neighbor. Then there is a slide showing this habituation over time, applied to tinnitus:

You can change your emotional reactions

Tinnitus -> Negative Thoughts -> Negative Reaction

Tinnitus -> Constructive Thoughts -> Anxiety, Irritation

Tinnitus -> Constructive Thoughts -> Less Irritation

Tinnitus -> Tinnitus not as prominent -> No Reaction

Well gee Doc, my problem isn't just tinnitus, it's the random, unexpected, shocking sounds that make me jump. I am awfully sorry, I just cannot find any positive associations to connect with the sudden sounds of the 4 year old kid upstairs screaming at the top of his lungs and jumping up and down on the floor, shaking my whole apartment until dishes fall out of my kitchen cabinets. I cannot habituate myself to my obnoxious co-worker's special ringtone of an emergency klaxon, when he gets a call from his child's emergency-only cell phone. Hell, nobody can habituate to that, the one and only time it rang, he caused a panic, everyone thought it was a fire alarm.

However, I did notice that I was more reactive to my co-workers yammering on and on about sports or their Magic The Gathering tournament, than I was when the same people talked about other subjects I do not loathe so much. So surely there is a psychological component. However, I would much prefer that they just STFU in general.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:42 PM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, it sort of gets off to a confusing start because he sort of interchangeably uses noise to refer to actual sound in the physical phenomenon sense, and noise in the metaphoric, anxious thinking sense. And maybe that was on poetic purpose or whatever, but it's kind of strange.

And it is true in some sense that our perception of sound depends on our state of mind, as he calls it. Though it would be more accurate to say that our perception of sound is constant while the degree of attention we give it is what varies. Your brain is pretty adept at sound filtering - you'll notice, thanks to things like your inferior colliculi (I love dropping neurology when I can), you don't really attend to a lot of humming and honking and such that goes on (a process which can fall apart with things like hyperacusis, as charlie don't surf mentions).

So I guess my point is that there is something to be said for the possibility of meditation, which is basically practicing certain ways of attending (or not attending) to having actual, profound neurological effects that may make ignoring physical noise much easier. It may be possible to sort of re-map the auditory cortex in such a way to better ignore certain sounds.

I mean, the whole point of meditation is to basically train yourself to not attend to things. Which is quite difficult. Especially when it comes to very salient, physical things - like sound, touch, etc. We are meant to attend to things. It's how we stay alive and such (Constant Vigilance!). But meditation does offer this unique way to sort of dampen the attention circuit in our brains. At it's core, it's not even a very woo-y thing. It's just practicing cognitive habits, like CBT or such. It just happens to focus on not attending - to sound outside or inside - to the various intrusive memories and such that seem to willy-nilly release themselves from the hippocampus and the temporal lobe so that at the oddest moments we picture Jimmy Carter or the horrible experience we had receiving our first hand job or whatever. The point is: ignoring your perceptions is a very interesting practice with perhaps some real scientific basis and possibilities.

In fact, a lot of tinnitus research deals with exactly this possibility. Since functional hair-cell regrowth seems somewhat distant (not that hair cell death/damage is the only cause of tinnitus, though certainly it is the most common) a lot of research is dealing with how might the sounds of tinnitus be filtered out by the brain, unregistered, so to speak, by the primary auditory cortex. I'm not sure if meditation-qua-spiritual practice has figured significantly into these studies, and I would assume not, but other, similar practices certainly have, along with a wide range of more experimental treatments like listening to music in certain bandwidths and such for extended periods of time in order to sort of remap the cortex to ignore some certain frequencies associated with one's specific tinnitus.

It was kind of dropped into the thread, but the tinnitus thing is really an interesting parallel here, only because it is strangely a subjective but physical sound. Not a lot of sensations are like that. It isn't very common, for example, for someone to constantly see some specific band of color that no one else can. It's partially because hearing is a mechanical process, so when things break, there's a different sort of rubble left behind. But it does serve as a sort of interesting example of the solipsism that I think a lot of meditation attempts to free you from. Tinnitus is like the ultimate meditation challenge. To what degree can you not attend to the sound of your own busted ears?
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:35 PM on September 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

I find myself reminded of John Cage and the time he spent in the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. Such a completely silent environment was something he was passionately seeking, and when he finally had a chance to really spend some time in there, he discovered he could hear his own nervous and circulatory systems at work in his own body.

Silence is an odd thing. The things we regard as silence aren't actually silent. I live 4 blocks from a busy train track, and find if I run a box fan in my room at night, the trains don't wake me up at 3am. I'm not creating silence, but I have a space which is mentally and sonically quieter.

I think this public radio show Stylus and it's first episode on Silence is a pretty interesting meditation on silence in general. Well worth the hour it takes to listen. (Ironic, I'm linking audio in this thread.)
posted by hippybear at 11:00 PM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was wandering around Target yesterday. It was in downtown Pasadena and wasn't the typical square building - it had two floors for starters, with banks of big elevators in the middle to hold shoppers and their carts. It felt as if maybe an old-school department store building had been renovated. So things were already a bit surreal: Target in a mirror universe.

Then the fire alarms started blaring.

They have those new-fangled alarms you see nowadays, with dozens of these white saucers embedded in the ceiling that have both flashing strobe effects and obnoxious klaxon.

The problem was that there were no signs of fire, smoke, or any other trouble. Employees, wincing along with the customers at the clamor, went along with their business. So we all did the same.

Information began to spread by random, raised-voice rumors that they couldn't shut off the alarms until the fire department arrived. And then a pair of employees came through and told everyone that it was a false alarm.

So for a good 10 minutes or so, the already surreal environment was filled with strobes and horns, and we all continued our shopping. It was like some sort of metaphor-of-modern-life short film.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:27 PM on September 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

I live 4 blocks from a busy train track, and find if I run a box fan in my room at night, the trains don't wake me up at 3am. I'm not creating silence, but I have a space which is mentally and sonically quieter.

This is so common it's almost universal. I mean, the most effective tinnitus treatment to date is probably maskers, which basically replaces the ringing sound with white noise. Which is really interesting - the brain sort of more easily ignores white noise, which is really just energy at all frequencies evenly distributed, than specific frequencies or specific distributions. Likely because white noise, because of its randomization, doesn't seem meaningful or salient in anyway.

I find myself reminded of John Cage and the time he spent in the anechoic chamber at Harvard University.

One of my favorite John Cage stories. Thanks to a fellow MeFite, I got to go into an anechoic chamber recently for the first time. And I was struck by just how uncomfortable it was! It's very physically alarming, very strange sensation. I got teary, actually. It really, really makes it so clear how much ambient noise we filter without attending to it - constantly. If you think about it too much, it makes you feel quite sorry for your brain actually.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:40 PM on September 3, 2013

Yeah, I was in a rather imperfect anechoic chamber many years ago, and even that was a really freaky experience. What we believe is silence is actually not, and being confronted with actual silence is deeply disturbing. I remember hearing something that I was later was told was air molecules bouncing off my eardrum. No idea of that was true, but it made as much sense as anything else attached to that experience.

We don't crave silence. We crave peace, and quiet, and what we desire as "quiet" isn't silence, it's the lack of noises which we find disturbing or distracting. There are reasons why Zen gardens usually contain somewhat noisy running water of some sort -- it is one of those things which our brains interpret as being quiet when in fact it is full of noise.
posted by hippybear at 11:51 PM on September 3, 2013

I went to LA recently and saw My Bloody Valentine play. They're renowned for how loud they can be, so everyone wore ear plugs. At some point during their last song (after blowing out speakers four times) they did this crazy sonic noisey freak out that was so incredibly loud that it seemed like I couldn't really hear anything. I stood there blown away at how strange it made me feel. People began putting their arms up to the sky. The lights began flashing really quickly and my girlfriend, who is epileptic, had to dig her face into my chest. I stood there mesmerized. It was the first time in my life that I had experienced something that was so loud that it almost seemed like it was perfectly silent. A friend of mine who was there said it was 130dB. It wasn't abrasive, but it was assaulting in a strangely peaceful way.
posted by gucci mane at 12:25 AM on September 4, 2013

Sorry, 120dB.* not sure how true that is though.
posted by gucci mane at 12:31 AM on September 4, 2013

I have intermittent tinnitus, but for some reason it doesn't bother me. I just think "oh, there's my tinnitus again", and get on with my life. Usually it goes away in a few minutes. Don't know what I'd do if it stopped going away, though.
posted by empath at 12:59 AM on September 4, 2013

In a fight between epistemologists and engineers, bet on the engineers.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:32 AM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Silence. Peace? No, agony. Deafening, weighty, oppressive, alarming, silence. It's not natural! Panic? No. PANIC. FEAR! FIRE FOES! and all that. Silence.

What you want is to be hearing crickets chirping, a block away. There's peace in that space, right there. All is well. It's when they stop that you have to worry.

Silence ain't golden. It's toxic.
posted by Goofyy at 3:40 AM on September 4, 2013

I mean, the whole point of meditation is to basically train yourself to not attend to things.

This describes samatha, a type of meditation where the mind is held to a particular focus (such as a lotus flower, a flame, a deity, etc.) It can produce a blissful state, but it won't by itself lead to enlightenment.

There is also vipassana, a type of meditation where the mind is allowed to attend to whatever arises, be it an internal or external stimulus, but then lets go.

The former can make the latter easier, but the latter is necessary for insight.
posted by vira at 3:59 AM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

So much of what we read, even when it is great entertainment, is deeply unhelpful.

posted by Twang at 9:00 AM on September 4, 2013

I have intermittent tinnitus... Don't know what I'd do if it stopped going away, though.

You would lay awake for hours, every night, listening, unable to sleep, silently wishing for the blissful relief that only death can bring. Then after a few months, you get used to it.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:51 PM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

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