As members of the audio industry, sound is our livelihood. Whether we’re cutting dialog, recording, editing, composing, or engaging in any other part of our field, we expose ourselves to sound everyday. And while sound is informative and emotionally moving, it is nevertheless a fatiguing experience for our body. Most of us have heard at one point or another the concept of listening fatigue and the need for audio professionals to take continued breaks when listening to sound. We understand the fact that constant sound causes our ears to experience tiredness, diminishing sensitivity and clarity, and that overtime, this can lead to lasting damage to our hearing. But how are these sounds affecting higher-level processes in our bodies such as our stress levels and our ability to focus?
Did you know that for most of us, the sounds that we hear everyday can cause physical stress and even have lasting health affects? There is evidence to show that our blood pressure, heart rate, and sympathetic nervous system (the system responsible for “fight or flight”) are all negatively affected by the constant stream of sounds we hear daily. Think about it this way, when you’re in the subway and you start hearing that usual grinding, high pitched screaming that accompanies speeding through tunnels, you aren’t likely to think to yourself, “Oh, how pleasant!” Instead, you’re probably grinding your teeth, beginning to feel annoyed at the asshole whose backpack is digging into your side, and trying desperately to read your book or blast music to drown the whole experience out.
A few weeks ago, the Yosemite Conservancy debuted a short video on soundscapes of the Yosemite National Park. In the video, bio-acoustician Dr. Bernie Krause, talks about how noise affects our everyday lives: “Every study that’s been done indicates that even when we’re unconscious of it, even when we deny it, that the stress levels, heart rate, blood pressure, all of those indicators are elevated when we’re in the presence of noise.” And before you start thinking that “noise” constitutes roaring stadium crowds or the screaming shrill of commuter trains, think again. The kind of sustained “noise” that Dr. Krause speaks of can be as simple as sounds sustained over 65 db.
The baseline level of “noise” that we experience daily is far beyond what our ancestors a few centuries ago had to deal with. But as a human race, we’re still not used to it. Our ears have learned to cope, but aren’t able to shut it out. Everyday, a sizable amount of our brain processing is dedicated to filtering out extraneous sounds that we are exposed to, helping us to focus on the sounds that we are trying to pay attention to.
So, how does this information affect us as audio industry professionals? Certainly we are as susceptible to the physical affects of noise, just like everyone else, but does it go one step further for us, beyond what the average person experiences? Anki, the company I work for, has a product called “Overdrive.” It’s a racing game with physical, artificially intelligent robot cars (think Hot Wheels, but with a brain) that connect to your smart phone and race around a track. One of the design tasks that I have been working on recently is creating new engine sounds for these vehicles. I purchased some car libraries and have spent the last few days working to find the right mix and edits to create good source material for design. But because of that, I’ve probably listened to upwards of 6 hours of vehicle engines per day! Now, I’ve been conscious of how loud I’m monitoring these sounds and have given my ears breaks as necessary, but still, that’s a lot of noise I’m asking my brain to process.
My situation is not an anomaly for audio professionals. Everything from mixing, recording, to cutting sounds causes an elevated amount of noise to be presented to our ears. And we know from research that this noise causes our blood pressure, heart rate, and stress levels to suffer. But what choice do we have? These are the skills of our trade and what we love to do.
What happens when you’ve reached a “listening break” in your work? What do you do? Do you turn on quiet classical music? Or perhaps you take a walk? Have you ever considered listening to nature sounds, or even better, walking to a park where you have reduced human noise pollution and a more natural soundscape? In fact, research has shown that while hearing sustained noise has negative effects on our bodies, listening to the sounds of nature has positive effects.
There was a famous study done in 1984, where researchers found that patients who were in the hospital recovering did better if their hospital room had a window looking out to nature. The conclusion was that the presence of nature is more than just pleasant; it has a restorative affect on our body. Another study completed in 2011, monitored how nature sounds affected stressed out university students. They found that the students that were listening to nature recovered from their symptoms of stress faster than those who didn’t.
One of the things that I often hear folks talk about in audio design is the idea of using sound to direct the audience’s ear. When I was sitting at the dinning room table this Christmas, for example, listening to my mother-in-law cackle away, I was actively tuning out other conversations going on around me. However, if this same scenario were to be represented as part of a film, the re-recording mixer would be responsible for directing the audience’s attention by carving out other dialog taking place. But what if this re-recording mixer has been working for several days or weeks on this project?
We know that increased levels of noise negatively affects our stress response. However, science has also shown that overtime, this affects our ability to focus as well. And in an industry where your job is to sift through 1,000’s of sounds to tell clear and focused stories, having a lack of focus yourself could be detrimental. If our own attention is fragmented, how can we hope to focus an audiences’ attention? In the late 80’s, Kaplan and Kaplan proposed a theory called Attention Restoration Theory. It states that a person can concentrate better after having spent time in nature. “Directed attention [or the ability to focus] plays an important role in human information processing; its fatigue, in turn, has far-reaching consequences. Attention Restoration Theory provides an analysis of the kinds of experiences that lead to recovery from such fatigue. Natural environments turn out to be particularly rich in the characteristics necessary for restorative experiences.”
As humans, we have a deep connection to nature. It’s only within the past century that we’ve surrounded ourselves with infrastructure and technology. But that’s not what has been “natural” for us. The research that we’ve seen over the past few decades is showing us just how hard our current lifestyle is on our bodies. And sound plays a big role in this. “My guess is that folks gravitate more to natural soundscapes as an acoustic environment because, when they’re recorded and reproduced properly, they resonate with a part of us which is quite atavistic,” says Dr. Krause. “Biophonies, in particular, are so much a part of our historical, cultural, and biological past, that they are likely programmed to some degree in our DNA.”
There are many sounds that we hear in our daily lives that cause stress, and there are many ways to recover from it. Listening to nature is not meant to be a hard and fast rule and by no means the only way to “relax.” Instead, my hope is that we can start a conversation about how we are more conscious of what we’re presenting to our ears, whether harmful or helpful. When we’re working, how we “take breaks” is just as important as important as remembering to take them. And most of all, being conscious of our health is the best way to ensure our best possible chance of a long career and better quality of life.
A special thank you to Dr. Bernie Krause for his help in thoughts and research for this article. You can find out more about him at www.wildsanctuary.com.
References & Notes:
 Ising H, Kruppa B. Health effects caused by noise: evidence in the literature from the past 25 years. Noise Health. 2004;6:5–13.
 Soundscapes – Yosemite Nature Notes – Episode 29, produced by Steven M. Bumgardner, Featuring Bernie Krause & Karyn O’Hearn; https://www.yosemiteconservancy.org/yosemite-nature-notes
 Ulrich RS. View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science. 1984;224:420–421.[PubMed]
 Kaplan S. The restorative benefits of nature—toward an integrative framework. J. Environ. Psychol. 1995;15:169–182.
 Definition: characterized by reversion to something ancient or ancestral.
 Definition: refers to the collective sound that vocalizing animals create in each given environment.