George Michelsen Foy's writing has led him from roiling action novels and political thrillers to dystopian fairy tales. And recently, always an astute researcher and journalist, he has established a new beachhead in nonfiction with a provocative book called Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence.
A professor of creative writing at NYU, Foy lives a writer's life in Manhattan; his experiences in the trenches led to a dark epiphany one day in the tunnels of the subway. Suddenly the screech of the trains broke through his provisionally fortified consciousness and propelled him a new direction - a search for true quiet, both in real and symbolic terms. Zero Decibels chronicles this quest, which led him across the country, to Canada and to Europe, decibel recorder in hand, to explore what were reputed to be the quietest places on Earth. It leads him as well into thoughtful ruminations about the nature of silence, conceivably a chimera of one of our deepest desires - peace. Zero Decibels, written in an articulate and often lyrical style, titillates and terrifies as it probes the depths of the very concept of an absolute absence of sound and questions whether that is in fact silence. Finally it drops us at an all too noisy shore where we, both individually and collectively, must determine our own path to silence.
As the book jacket describes: "The places he visits that inform his search, include the Parisian catacombs, Joseph Pulitzer’s “silent vault,” the snowy expanses of the Berkshires, and a giant nickel mine in Canada, where he travels more than a mile underground to escape all human-made sound. Along the way, Foy experiments with noise-canceling headphones, floatation tanks, and silent meditation before he finally tackles a Minnesota laboratory’s anechoic chamber that the Guinness Book of World Records calls “the quietest place on earth,” and where no one has ever endured even forty-five minutes alone in its pitch-black interior before finding the silence intolerable."
an excerpt from chapter four: a brief history of silence
Has the human animal ever known silence? Did we know it during the 99 percent of our history when we were apemen, like William Hurt in his floatation tank phase? Even living in the wild from campsite to campsite, with no technology and thus no source of sound possible besides what the natural environment produced or what we could directly make with our bodies and the odd stick or slice of mammoth gut, we must always have been a noisy species, or at least a life-form hardwired to create sound.
Each of us begins, after all, among the screams of a mother in labor, with the outraged wail of a newborn. We live amid the Sturm und Drang of family life and the more widespread chatter of clan, tribe, neighborhood. Our lives trace a cycle etched to a great extent by sound. More than the tool-making animal, man is the mammal who tells stories, or in any event talks a lot; and if you have any doubts about that statement, walk into Havana Central, down the street from us. The din in that bar is impressive.
excerpts from chapter two: quest for total sound
The New York subway system, for instance, carries an average of four million passengers every weekday. Almost all of them are the type of rider I used to be, who reckons that protecting yourself in any way from subway noise brands one as a quivering jellyfish, a poor excuse for a human; a non-New Yorker, in other words. But a 2006 Columbia University study measured sound generated by New York subway trains and found that the average maximum noise on subway platforms stood at 94 decibels (the decibel, or dB, is the preferred unit of noise measurement), with peaks of over 100. This is well over the volume of a fully revved-up chainsaw held at arm’s length. Moreover, the CU study found, merely spending a half hour in the subway system, exposed to the average noise level of trains, would exceed safety guidelines recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization, potentially resulting in damage to one’s hearing system...
For it is not only subways that generate harmful sound. The EPA estimated recently that 13.8 million Americans are regularly exposed to “excessive” noise levels, defined as anything over 70 decibels, and that 30 million suffer from “toxic” noise where they work. Bad noise is the number one occupational disease in the US, according to EPA...
The pandemic manifests itself in permanent damage to hearing. That much is obvious. In the US, according to the EPA, 30 million people suffer from environment-related deafness; the same figure, although probably not the same exact sample, as those exposed to toxic noise. But hearing loss, it turns out, may be only the more obvious effect of toxic noise. Cornell studies in the late 1990s found that chronic exposure to levels of noise greater than 50 dB—the volume of nearby conversation, local traffic, or rain plashing in a courtyard—results in measurably lower educational performance in children, and lower motivation; what the study calls “learned helplessness.” It also boosts stress hormones, blood pressure, and heart rates.
Some research even suggests that sound, and not even very loud sound, can kill on the spot. Low-frequency noise, such as that produced in large buildings by ventilation and heating ducts or wind effects, can match and resonate with the frequencies of our body cavities. Sounds with frequencies of 8 cycles per second, for example, vibrate in time with the chambers of the heart, increasing the potential for thrombosis. Seven-cycle sounds trigger a harmonic with the brain’s 9 Hz alpha wave frequencies, causing fatigue, headaches and nausea. Research by Cornell’s Gary Evans suggests that low-level noise in open-style offices results in greater production of the stress hormone epinephrine, and lower “task motivation” as well. A 1998 study article in Archives of General Psychiatry mapped out how chronically loud environments shift dopamine levels to hinder activity in the prefrontal cortex, otherwise known as our conscious brain. One of the papers delivered at the Neuroscience 2000 conference demonstrated that noise is registered first by our non-conscious brain, which processes it as fight-or-flight data before forwarding it to the prefrontal areas for deconstruction. This is a fancy way of saying that a million years of living as hunter-gatherers in the wild have conditioned us to react instinctively to sudden, loud events.
One gets some idea of the vast range involved when one understands that decibels are measured exponentially: every three-decibel increase equals a doubling of the previous volume level. Thus a jump from forty to fifty dB is not a 25 percent but a 333 percent increase. A 50 dB clang is 6.6 times louder than a 30 dB clang. 100 decibels is 16.5 times louder than 50...
from chapter 14, the monks of Citeauz, silence as absolute
Our senses are all we have to go by. We can natter on about Kant and pre-existing phenomena, and the notion that to think of something impossible implies an independent existence for that idea; but every pre-existing concept I’ve ever met or had lunch with is a clear matrix for physical, earthly processes, whether or not they take that form in everyday life. To aver that the concept of a pink elephant, which doesn’t exist in the real world, means that “pink-elephantness” must therefore enjoy some kind of special, independent existence in the ether somewhere seems a clunky, overly complex way to describe the basic function of imagination. The same applies to God, or calculus. Story-telling and creativity are always based on seeing new and often impossible connections, however trivial; joining together things which heretofore were separated. Such processes are the core of our humanity, or more accurately, our apehood, since chimps demonstrate the same abilities every time they find a new method of using a twig to dig out a particularly crunchy termite from the mound.
But there’s a second conclusion to reach here—or so I write in my notes. I have reckoned that silence, in both its relative existence and its imagined essence, is necessary as a means to end all previous sounds, and start a new rhythm. When we see a connection no one has seen before: “I can use a twig, instead of my fingers, to dig for bugs,” or “the reason light from a distant star refracts oddly is because it is being bent by an invisible planet,” we are relying on a void that happens between concepts that we have always used and never questioned (“I can’t see a planet, so it doesn’t exist;” “we always use fingers to probe for termites”), and a truly novel way of looking at the world. It follows—I have noted this before—that silence is how we reset meters, and timing, and all the rhythms and measurements that flow from such notions. Without such absolutes—without the idea of an absolute at which measurement ends—we would have no starting point for nor end to our philosophies. No dropping back to zero, no de-clutching of our geared structures, no end to gauging, no reboot of madly cycling programs...