Primal Numbers – Noise Pollution

It might be the sounds of traffic, or that speakerphone in the next cubicle, or even your own MP3 player. Whatever the source, modern humans are bombarded by noise all day and, sometimes, all night. You might think that It’s just an annoyance, but research shows that noise pollution affects your mental and physical health in surprising ways?and could even cause a drop in your grades.

Noise is nothing new. Not even the earliest humans lived in a world of complete silence. There has always been the sound of the wind in the trees, birdsong, animal noises, waves lapping. But modern noise pollution is something completely different. As the Franklin Institute reports, in 2001 the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 138 million Americans were “regularly exposed to noise levels labeled as excessive by the Environmental Protection Agency.”

But just because a noise isn’t loud enough to cause hearing loss doesn’t mean It’s not a danger to your health. As this Scientific American article notes, chronic, low-level noise pollution can be a major culprit behind our fractured attention spans. The effect is two-fold. First, the constant white noise of modern life causes a stress reaction and the release of cortisol. Too much cortisol “impairs function in the prefrontal cortex,” our brain’s reasoning and planning centre.

Second, the stress of noise pollution affects another brain chemical, dopamine, by lowering it. Since dopamine controls information flow, the stress of noise pollution “may decrease higher brain function, impairing learning and memory.”

So if you like studying with the TV or iPod on, you could very well be doing your grades more harm than good.

But what if You’re not the source of that white noise? How do you take what science is saying about noise pollution and mitigate the barrage of sound in your own life? There are a few ways, and commercial products are catching up to our need for a bit more quiet.

At home the options are fairly simple?though hardly fashionable. You can always clap on a pair of industrial earmuffs, which work great but are bulky.

There are also lots of options in disposable or multi-use earplugs, from foam to plastic flanged. Be aware, though, that unless you install them right you won’t get anywhere near the noise-reduction rating (NRR) on the package. That’s because ear canals come in all different shapes and sizes, and generic earplugs won’t be a perfect fit for everyone. You can increase their effectiveness by following directions, and this video from the Howard Leight brand is just one of many that explain how It’s done.

The ultimate, though, is custom-molded earplugs. Done by an audiologist or other hearing professional, a mold is made of your ear canal. The molds are shipped off to the manufacturer and custom earplugs arrive about a week later. The beauty of custom plugs is that, unlike disposables, they don’t rely on pressure to block out sound. When done right they fit your ear canal perfectly, and many users claim they don’t feel them at all (this video shows just how low-profile they are).

In Canada, a set of custom earplugs costs about a hundred and fifty dollars. With a typical product lifespan of five or six years, that works out cheaper than buying disposables. One caveat: some companies offer do-it-yourself mold kits, but be careful. Making an earplug mold involves inserting a small foam block deep inside the ear canal to protect the eardrum. I don’t know about you, but That’s something I’d rather leave to a professional.

Another benefit to custom plugs? They can be solid, vented to allow conversation, and come in models for sleep. You can even get custom molds with an opening to slip your earbuds into, blocking out background noise and allowing you to lower the volume on your phone or MP3 player.

If You’re lucky enough to live in a peaceful, rural atmosphere, the news about noise pollution will probably go in one ear and out the other. But for the millions of people who try to work or study while bathed in the non-stop hum of white noise, hearing protection might be just what the doctor ordered for stress reduction and improved memory. And who knows? You might just find turning down the sound helps you turn up your grades.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.