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Culture & Religion

Is This the Worst Pollution of All?

Members of Vickers workforce put their hands to their ears as the four Rolls Royce jet engines in a Vickers VC-10 make an ear-splitting noise on its maiden flight. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

I trail run early in the morning, in part, to avoid people. Los Angeles might be vast, but spacious it is not. By 6:30 am I’m running up one side or another of Temescal, heading either onto Topanga’s Skull Rock loop or to Will Rogers and the Backbone Trail through Rivas Canyon. Usually I count the people I encounter on one hand.

Monday morning was different. When I reached my five-mile turnaround I passed a woman walking up the Backbone Trail, iPhone attached to her belt blasting out a podcast. On the way back I pass a fellow jogger whose earbud techno preceded her physical form. Near the end of my ten miles a woman with three dogs—one being carried, the other two unleashed almost taking out my feet—barely notices me due to the yelling she’s doing into her phone.

There’s little difference on the beaches, which is why I avoid Santa Monica and Venice altogether. Even in the more sedate stretches of sand someone inevitably pumps pop music through a Bluetooth connection. I love music. I’ve worked in the industry for over two decades, though at this moment it truly is noise, sonic chatter drawing attention away from the last vestiges of nature we urbanites can enjoy.

Disastrous effects of pollution are pervasive on social media and elsewhere: fracking waste, oil spills, plastic, cell phone bits. Rarely do we consider one of the most powerful influences on our nervous system—noise. Just as electric light severs speculation of the stars, the incessant buzzing of instruments steals from us any sense of place.

Sound is our most powerful means of communication, linking us with the rest of the animal kingdom. It is also a weapon: toothed whales emit an eruptive burst of sound to stun prey; snapping shrimp create a sudden orchestra to bewilder fish. Killer whales mimic sea lions in order to attract them, in order to eat them. American soldiers torture their prey through heavy metal and children’s music.

Our auditory system is closely linked to our visual system. If we see a glass fall in the kitchen, we expect to hear it shatter. But if we’re in the bedroom as it crashes, the sound causes our brain to create a host of potential threats. Such an occurrence quickly grabs our attention. In general, however, we disregard persistent low-level noises, even though those too greatly affect us.

As musician and ecologist Bernie Krause writes, trying to separate noise from signal is stressful and tiring, elevating our glucocorticoids (such as cortisol) by as much as 40 percent. These enzymes play a role in immune system feedback by either triggering or reducing inflammation, which is why the increase is not helpful. Krause continues,

Even moderate noise in a workplace caused measurable exhaustion, blood pressure elevation, and negative attitudinal shifts after only a few days of exposure.

Excess noise has been implicated in the impairment of learning and memory functioning all the way to an elevated risk in heart attacks, anxiety, and general fatigue. One study found that between 1996 and 2005, urban noise in the US increased by 12 percent. According to Krause, more than 40 percent of Americans dream of moving somewhere quieter—a number contradicted by growing cities. We can only imagine that marker has increased in the last eleven years, especially given the cacophonous battery of texts and phone alerts keeping our nervous system under surveillance twenty-four hours a day.

One thing I notice in my yoga and fitness classes is how hard stillness is for many people. Most have no problem with high-intensity strength and cardiovascular drills, nor flowing through triplanar sequences of intricate postures. Ask them to hold a static stretch for a minute, however, and you’ll witness a room filled with hair fiddling, pants rubbing, toenail flicking, and a host of other nervous ticks. Our brains are wired for stimulation, not retreat.

You cannot separate your body from its environment. Buddhist philosophy was designed with the recognition of interdependence, the fact that our actions affect those we’ll never meet or even know exist. Since space is the intermediary in this relationship, how that space is shaped is an essential component of our worldview and how we act in it. If your mind is focused and body calm, how you move through space will follow suit. A harried mind and rushed body likewise influences others.

Which is why it’s hard for me to understand why one would ascend two thousand feet into the mountains or stand at the edge of an ocean that stretches for thousands of miles only to drown out the few sounds left in what Krause calls the biophony: “life sound.” Circadian rhythms, the tempo of movement, the smooth flow of thinking—all dependent upon our relationship to nature. Destroying an opportunity of even a moment of stillness and self-reflection seems such a waste of time. What are we really exercising, what enjoying, if we can’t unplug even for a minute? 

Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.


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