December 10, 2021 • By Dennis Beaver
“I am CEO of a logistics company that works with shippers to streamline delivery of goods to retail businesses all across America. Our office is a beehive of activity, especially now. We need all hands on deck at all times.
“Last week our insurance broker, ‘Diana,’ dropped by the office, and handed me: Of Sound Mind – How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World,” by Northwestern University Professor of Neurobiology and Communication Sciences, Dr.Nina Kraus.
“It contains important insights and tips for business owners, where office activity generates a lot of background noise – not as loud as a jack hammer, but sound that can reduce productivity and impact health. This is something that few people in management ever think of. Read it and tell me what you are going to do, because the level of activity going on here is taking a silent, noisy toll on your staff.”
“Mr. Beaver, Diana was right and I learned so much! May I suggest that you interview Dr. Kraus. You have written about occupational noise before; she shines a light on aspects of workplace noise that were new to me. Thanks. ‘Don’ a long-time Cleveland, Ohio reader.”
“Safe Noise” Isn’t Safe at All
Don’s email showed up at the right time as I spoke with Professor Kraus a week earlier.
Her excitement for the magic of sound, how our brains make sense of the auditory world, her joy in what it all brings to us just permeates the book, complimented by her YouTube videos. She began our interview with this observation:
“All employers want to reduce the incidence of health problems, absenteeism, burnout, health, insurance, workers compensation claims and insurance rates. They study ways to reduce risk, but are generally not aware of how safe noise is connected to all these things.”
I’ll bet you are wondering, “Safe noise? What’s that?”
“Most of us are aware of the risk in listening to music too loud – in fact cell phones display a warning when we approach a level where we can do actual damage to our hearing,” she observes.
“Dangerous levels of noise are all around us – just think of the poor gardener with a leaf-blower or lawnmower and not wearing any kind of hearing protection. Over time, real hearing loss will likely develop.”
Injury to Your Sound Mind
“But there is another kind of noise – safe noise – that is not loud enough to physically damage your ears, won’t give you a hearing loss, per se, but will damage your hearing brain, or, as we call it, ‘your sound mind.’
“It is called ‘safe’ because it is below the noise levels the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health says requires hearing protection. These are quieter sounds, like the beeping truck outside, a refrigerator, the sounds generated in a typical office environment.”
And that’s one of the concepts Of Sound Mind develops through examples taken from everyday life. “Our hearing brain determines how we think, feel, move, and interact with all of our senses. Safe noise can very much damage the hearing brain – not the ear, the brain,” Kraus underscores.
I had never heard the term before, aware of hearing damage from dangerously loud sounds, but not what it does to the brain. This made me think of Rod Serling’s opening remarks in The Twilight Zone: “There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.”
To Kraus, that fifth dimension is the hearing brain, “As our world has become filled with persistent levels of safe sound, our ability to think, to concentrate, and to feel has been compromised as our brain–the hearing brain–sustains actual, provable injury.”
She cited a study of children at a school, where half of the students were in a room facing subway trains. Test results showed them to be far worse off than kids in a quiet room.
“In a typical office, ambient office noise include the irritating sound of computer fans, chairs scraping on the floor, background noise of people talking who are not part of the conversation you are involved in, music, a radio or the TV on. Phones are ringing, people are getting texts on their phones and on it goes.
“Our hearing – the hearing brain – is connected to cognition – to how we think, feel, move and engage other senses, our sensory motor and reward systems.
“These ambient noises harm employees in the typical office as they cause significant physiological stress which interferes with the ability to focus, to think, to pay attention, to remember. And, it is all on an unconscious level, worldwide costing billions of dollars due to decreased productivity and increased absenteeism.”
What to Do?
When I built my office years ago I had ambient noise in mind. It is quieter than a library, and we face a noisy street. We have carpeting, sound absorbing baffles, cloth paneling on the walls, acoustic ceiling tile.
“When an employer is aware of the problem,” she maintains, “so much can be done to provide employees an acoustically healthier work environment. We need to value quiet and noise reduction.”
Of Sound Mind will change your understanding of our acoustic world and provide justification for business owners to develop a noise-reduction strategy. I encourage visiting www.brainvolts.northwestern.edu
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.