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Tinnitus and the deafening problem of noise pollution

Hearing-related problems are on the rise.

Comedian Ricky Gervais puts his fingers in his ears before the firing of 1 O'clock gun at Edinburgh Castle, June 11, 2007 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Ricky Gervais will be performing at the Edinburgh Castle on Sunday 26th August and is the first ever comedian to perform there.

Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
  • Noise pollution should be considered a public-health crisis, according to experts that study the problem.
  • Between 15-20 percent of humans will suffer from tinnitus during their lives.
  • Carbon is not the only catalyst for environmental degradation; entire ecosystems are being destroyed by noise.

Roughly one out of every five humans will suffer from tinnitus at some point in their lives. Though this ringing in the ears isn't a condition, but a symptom—of an ear injury or age-related hearing loss—the problem is widespread. A range of treatments, from symptom-relieving supplements to sound wave therapy, are being sold in a growing market. But the causes aren't being addressed nearly as ambitiously.

At least one major cause, that is: noise pollution. A recent New Yorker article suggests noise pollution is a candidate for the "next big public-health crisis," though it's in stiff competition with smartphone addiction, opioids, and the physical and mental health consequences of student debt. According to the CDC, hearing loss is the third-most common physical condition affecting adults (after hypertension and arthritis). Twelve percent of the working population experiences hearing difficulty in some capacity.

Twenty-two million workers are exposed to hazardous noise every year in America. In the manufacturing sector, which accounts for 13 percent of the national workforce, occupational hearing loss is the most common work-related ailment. One of out every nine recorded illnesses are due to excessive noise.

Then factor in neighborhoods. David Owen, whose forthcoming book addresses the growing problem of hearing loss, highlights a Paris-based study that discovered people that live in heavy transportation paths experience higher incidences of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, sleeping problems, birth-related problems, heart problems, and an inability to pay attention at work. Living in a noisy area also has a profound impact on longevity.

Why Noise Pollution Is More Dangerous Than We Think | The Backstory | The New Yorker

Cities are wonderful places, but they produce chronic physical problems. In The Great Animal Orchestra, soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause notes that urban noise levels in America increased by 12 percent between 1996 and 2005, with over one-third of citizens complaining about noise levels.

Intrusive sounds affect us far beyond the inconsiderate motorcyclist and construction workers jackhammering sidewalks. Krause writes that what we hear is profoundly affected by what we see; in dense urban areas, we're assaulted by imagery on a daily basis. We might grow to believe filtering background noise is easy, yet the interference of ambient (and not quite ambient, but outright offensive) sounds disrupt our attentional capacities and nervous system.

Trying to filter unwanted sounds creates a chemical spike in our bodies. Glucocorticoid enzyme levels rise by as much as 40 percent when we're separating noise from signal, resulting in fatigue and stress. As Krause writes, "even moderate noise in a workplace caused measurable exhaustion, blood pressure elevation, and negative attitudinal shifts after only a few days of exposure."

We become accustomed to these elevations—sort of—yet the chronic interference damages our health. For example, increased blood pressure and stress hormones from noise pollution have led to an uptick in heart attacks in people assualted by higher decibels on a regular basis.

We're not only destroying our own health, but that of the planet. Consider the ocean. Krause writes that social vocalizations enforce group cohesion across species. Toothed whales send out what marine biologists term a "big bang," a "highly focused eruptive beam" that stuns prey so that whales expend less energy chasing food. Snapping shrimp emit sound so quickly that target fish are rendered incapacitated, another adaptation that makes hunting easier.

Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

These sonic adaptations are targeted attempts to survive in the animal kingdom. Yet human intervention is unique, and not in a progressive manner. A Canadian organization notes that underwater noise pollution is threatening the existence of species of whales that evolved in quieter oceans. Our impact thwarts their navigational abilities, injuring or killing entire populations of marine life and disrupting mating calls. Turns out there are many ways to destroy a population. Carbon is not the only catalyst for environmental degradation.

Noise damages our ears at 85 decibels; most concerts are downright deafening, climbing to 110-120 decibels. Even restaurants now match or surpass that level. Architecture and design critic, Kate Wagner, wonders how public spaces designed for eating have allowed so much noise to ruin our dining experiences.

What's good for an establishment's bottom line—increased noise forces quicker turnover and higher alcohol consumption—is adding to the problem. During various meal times in Baltimore and New York City, she measured noise levels: "80 decibels in a dimly lit wine bar at dinnertime; 86 decibels at a high-end food court during brunch; 90 decibels at a brewpub in a rehabbed fire station during Friday happy hour."

Is the antidote a $500 sound therapy machine? A relaxation app designed to combat tinnitus? Expensive (and often unproven) herbal treatments? At the moment, there is no cure for noise-related hearing loss. Owen writes that regulations could be enforced to reduce manufacturing and shipping noise, but that requires governmental intervention. In America such enforcement doesn't appear to be very high on the list.

In certain situations, governments are adding to the problem. That's the assessment of a Washington community fighting noise pollution created by fighter jets, for one. As with many technological advancements, the private sector is contributing in its own way. For example, the creation of electric vehicles, especially Mack trucks and other industrial-scale vehicles, though that too comes with its own problems. Ever since mobility services expanded beyond the horse and buggy we've created as many problems as we've solved.

While an inconvenient truth, humans are simply mismatched for the environment we've created. In our ascension to apex predator—especially post-Industrial Revolution—we've become especially adept at destroying ourselves and other species (except jellyfish). Carbon emissions receive top billing in climate change discussions, yet many other factors are chipping away at the fabric of existence. So little signal left, so much noise ruining the soundscape.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

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  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
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Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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