Month: May 2014

White Noise for the Soul

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Most of us lead busy lives in a noisy world. From the moment we wake to when our heads hit the pillow we push through one goal to the next, driven, pulled, and otherwise compelled. Maybe the busyness is of our own making, or perhaps we blame it on something else—a job, perceived needs.

That time between the lights going black and our falling asleep is often the first and only time of the day the mind is allowed to quiet down and lift through sensation, to review its day, to make plans, to make art. I have always worked best when all others in the house are asleep. There is, though, nothing special about the night, as some would contend. I also attribute no great significance to habit.

It is all about the silence, the silence all about.

Sustained attention is difficult—meditation is a good example—or try making up a long sentence, or a passage of music, or envision a scene—hold its details in the mind. These processes challenge our short-term memory. Doing it in silence is, unsurprisingly, easier. But why?

There is a technique used in research into perception and memory called masking. A stimulus is presented (black dashes on a white square) then the mask (random black and white pixels—think TV static or a QR code) which shields, or rather replaces the visual imprint of the sensation. If presented quickly enough, it can remove the stimulus from conscious processing. It is the equivalent of white noise—patternless sensory input.

Auditory and subvocal short term memory holds longer than the fleeting afterimage of the visual system, but still not long—a matter of seconds.

People use white noise to help get them off to sleep. Tune a radio between stations for the hiss. Some use a station proper at low volume. I’ve noticed the drone of a pedestal fan does the job; the hum of an AC for others.

With such white noise blanketing my mind, I find it hard to maintain coherent streams of memory as I lie in bed, or to write a long sentence in my mind. Clauses butt up against a wall, fantasies jump about like dream storylines.

Perhaps this white noise is doing for the language parts of the mind what a random array of dots does for the visual afterimage on the retina: scours it clean.

We are surrounded by white noise all the time. Droning aircon at work, traffic noise, conversations from the next room, all the static of standby screens and fluorescent tubes. In cities, the world is not conducive to slow contemplation, and purposely so—they are an apt metaphor for the world we have created and the lives we lead.

So what do we lose in this sea of white noise? Is there a vast blue depth beneath the surface that we are locking out?

Is the necessity of silence for contemplation the same for everyone? Probably not. Maybe some people can block it out, essentially doing what meditators do. Or maybe they just don’t notice something is missing, but it is blocking them nonetheless.

Perhaps because we think in words, we think in coherent grammars of anticipation and remembrance, such noise blocks our creativity, our ability to think at all beyond automatic processes and rehashing of the mundane. Maybe it is different for someone who thinks in colour or otherwise relies on visual stimulation.

We shuffle on through, we sense and we react, and maybe we don’t think. We move through life, not with it. And why not? Thinking is dangerous, confronting. But it is also full of possibility.