The sound of silence

LIKE MOST people, I use my mobile phone all of the time. I read on it, I do research on it, I write on it, I listen to music, podcast and audiobooks on it. Sometimes, I check my email account only to discover that I last checked it a few minutes ago.

But there are some things I don't do with it:

  • I don't use it while walking or driving.
  • I don't use it to listen to or watch video in public without using headphones.

I don't mean to get all preachy about this, but the human brain does not multitask. Faced with a series of tasks that need to be completed concurrently, your brain skips from one to the other dividing attention between them. So, if you're using your phone while driving, your concentration is compromised - that's why it is illegal. Tap "people killed by drivers using phones" into YouTube, and you will find 1,410,00 profoundly disturbing videos.

The same is true of walking and reading or texting from your mobile screen. Your attention is not on your surroundings, or the other people around you. But texting while walking is now so common that thousands of people are injured every year walking into or off things while texting: some have been killed. One man bumped into a black bear while texting; another fell on to railway tracks while he was just talking on his phone.

Reading or texting while walking adds a combative element to moving through a crowded city like London: people walking and texting are relying on other people not to bump into them, passing on the responsibility for avoiding collision to strangers. It doesn't always work. Sometimes, it makes people angry.

This is no joke. Universities - Ohio and Queensland, for instance - have researched the dangers of texting and walking (apparently if you're texting, you're likely to swerve even if you think you're walking in a straight line). If you want to see the alarming evidence click here. YouTube has almost 18,000 videos of people having accidents while texting.

Watching videos or listening to music with the volume turned up on your phone - and without using headphones - is clearly not so dangerous, but it is likely to irritate other people. There have been plenty of news reports about commuters getting into fights. It's not long since a youth on a train to Peckham in South-east London ended up in A&E after another bloke bit his ear in a row over his loud use of a phone.

"Noise annoyance" is a condition recognised by the World Health Organisation: that's how WHO describes the negative feelings noise can create including disturbance, irritation, dissatisfaction and nuisance, as well as a feeling of having one’s privacy invaded. It's a real thing.

Quite why people are prepared to irritate others by playing loud music or watching videos of a football match at full volume on a train is an unanswered question.

My local rail service handles 640,000 passenger journeys every day - that's a lot of individuals crammed together in relatively small spaces. Some of them will be polite, some will be be impolite. Some will be pillars of society, some will be criminals. Some will have learning disabilities, some will have mental health issues. (According to MIND one in four people will suffer a mental health problem every year, and one in six will suffer from anxiety or depression every week.) 

One thing is absolutely certain, there is no commonly accepted standard of behaviour that everybody subscribes to, and the expectation that people should stick to an unwritten code of social conduct is unrealistic. They won't.

Books have been written about what is known as "the narcissism epidemic", arguing that we live in an age in which people have a sense of entitlement whether they have earned it or not - and don't any longer care what other people think. I don't know whether that is true, although there are clearly many who believe it to be so. There's a good piece on the subject here.

Personally, I solved the problem of other rail passenger's noise pragmatically by investing in a pair of music-industry standard earplugs, which reduces everything including the noise of the train on the tracks to a low hum (and, yes, I do take them out before I get off the train). An alternative, I know, is to listen to your own choice of music or spoken word on headphones - but often I just want to be quiet.

Which brings me to the sound of silence. Silence is good for you - physically and psychologically:

  • It lowers blood pressure.
  • It boosts the immune system.
  • It helps the brain grow new cells in as little as two hours. The science is here if you doubt that.
  • It promotes good hormone regulation.
  • It lowers blood cortisol levels and adrenaline, reducing stress.
  • It helps prevent plaque formation in the arteries.

It may also help with creativity, problem solving and reflection.

Noise pollution, on the other hand, is bad for you. A report by the World Health Organization and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, revealed that noise pollution:

  • Can lead to higher blood pressure, strokes and fatal heart attacks.
  • Impairs learning and development in children.
  • Impairs memory function.

Some sound - ultrasound, in particular - has been linked to nausea, headaches and dizziness. Research is ongoing.

So, here is a question for you: when did you last experience silence? If it was a long  time ago - and given the society we live in, it might well have been - isn't it time you gave yourself a few hours off, and stepped away from all of the noise?

Imagine how that would make you feel. Just imagine.

And then do it.