“The White Noise of Modern Life” – can you hear it?

I’m currently loving reading a book about a man, Chris, who is walking the coastline of the UK. This isn’t as easy as you might suppose if, as the author is doing, you are determined to stick to the actual coastline of a small nation with a very jagged perimeter and lots of islands.

What makes this a compelling story is that Chris’ walk is as much about mental attitude as it is about the physical challenge.

As you can imagine, part of the time is spent in cities and coastal towns, but there are huge sections where the walk is through sparsely populated areas.

Upon leaving one of our country’s busier cities the author used this phrase – [it was great to be away from] “the white noise of modern life.”

Something about this phrase reverberated around my mind, and I’ve pondered it several times since.

In recent years, the term white noise has taken on a broader meaning, breaking out of its signal processing origins. In this quote I think Chris is referring to all those things that we are so used to being there that we no longer notice them. They are there, all the time, in the background, vibrating the air.

As I pondered, I started trying to listen to the white noise and to hear those things that many of us allow into our modern existence to fulfil a purpose, bringing with them noise.

I sought out times when I could turn other noises down to see what was underneath, it would take me a few minutes each time, but this is what I found in my surroundings.

On my morning walk, a time when I deliberately try to have a time of quiet, I have been aware of a significant white noise for some time. I regularly post videos of my walk on Instagram, but rarely with the original audio, and that’s because my walk is always accompanied by road noise. There is an eight-lane motorway near to my house and I never walk far enough away from it for there not to be a level of tyre hum. When I made the effort to listen there were other noises that I wasn’t aware of, over in the near distance there’s a warehouse which was being accompanied by the serenade of vehicles maneuvers, there was also the hum of machinery at a nearby building site. All white noise that my brain was filtering out until I paid attention to it.

Returning home, I sat in my office and listened. The clock had stopped, I’ve written about that before. Outside a workman was using an impact driver to erect some woodwork in my garden. There is the low hum of the powered air-filter underneath my desk and another buzz which I eventually discovered to be one of the LED lights, my main monitor also has a slight buzz. My desk is positioned in front of a window that looks out into our garden. I love to have the window open for the fresh air and the sound of the birds, but the window also opens to the sound of the motorway. My laptop is quite quiet, but it isn’t silent. All imperceptible most of the time but lurking in the air.

Sitting in my lounge there’s some more white noise that I can hear. It’s coming from near the TV, but the TV isn’t the cause, one of the boxes has a hard drive in it, which must be spinning iron as it’s causing a vibration that is slightly rattling the glass shelf on which it stands. It’s not much, but more white noise. As I sit in silence for a little longer, I can also hear that the uplighter in the corner has an electrical hum. More air vibration.

We are privileged to have a small room where there is a chair and not a lot else, deliberately. I sit in there and I am struck by how quiet it feels, I can’t put my finger on what has changed, but it’s notably more peaceful in this place away from other noise generators.

I suppose the real question here is – so what? Does the noise we surround ourselves with have any impact upon us? I’ve done a bit of reading around, and the answer is inconclusive. There’s a link between noise and stress, which is clearly negative, but white noise is also linked with stress reduction. There are studies that show that white noise can have a positive, and negative, impact on both performance and stress depending on the volume. The impact of white noise is also dependent upon the type of activity being undertaken.

As the noise I’m talking about here isn’t true white noise, I’m not sure that we can claim the benefits, but do we need to do something about the negatives?

If we look at the primary source of white noise in my life, the road noise, there is research but it’s not really talking about my situation:

Despite my inconclusive research findings, I have a feeling that the noise around me is generating a level of stress, nothing major, but enough to be noticeable. We can give up our quiet spaces too easily and I’m determined to do a bit more to protect my own. I’m also looking to reduce the white noise in my workplace, although most of that is irrelevant at present as the workman is still building in my garden.

For those of you wondering here are the book details:

  • Title: Finding Hildasay: How One Man Walked the UK’s Coastline and Found Hope and Happiness
  • Author: Christian Lewis
  • ISBN-10‏: ‎ 1035006790
  • ISBN-13: ‎ 978-1035006793

Header Image: The local tree canopy is looking radiant in its green out on my morning walk.

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