Zia Hassan

The White Noise Paradox

+++ title = “06” date = 2018 +++

I’m sensitive to sound. It’s always been this way. Vacuums, sirens, people talking during movies, loud noises coming from rooms/houses nearby late at night… all irritate my brain in ways that can’t be easily described. When I was an RA in college, the majority of my reports were noise violations. I’m sensitive to it.

But that sensitivity runs both ways. The sound of vegetables sizzling in oil in a frying pan brings me intense amounts of joy. A good record does the same. The sound of my fingers typing on my MacBook Pro at this very moment, same thing. I can identify people’s voices easily, like when I saw Rogue One and heard Riz Ahmed’s voice and immediately knew he was the rapper from Swet Shop Boys.

One weird thing I noticed though.

In September, a podcast brought to my attention the idea of taking noise cancelling headphones on a flight to feel less anxious about the flight, that most anxiety on an airplane was a result of the unidentified sound. I ended up getting a pair and it changed my life. Now, I can’t fly without them. It’s not so much the beeping alert systems, but just the general growl of the plane. Without it, I’m a much happier camper.

Then, a few months after that, when I was having trouble falling asleep, someone who knows me well and knows my sensitivity to sounds, recommended trying a white noise generator. The one that I got from Amazon has a fan inside; you turn it on and it whirs gently. You can increase the volume by lengthening the space where the sound comes through. I got back into a regular sleeping pattern as a result.

It’s odd though.

Why would artificial silence in the white noise environment of the airplane be relaxing, but the silence in my room at night be deafening enough to keep me awake?

Why do I crave stillness in a dynamic environment and movement in a serene environment?

The answer is that I’m looking at the wrong pattern. It’s the same way I don’t love the texture of olives until they’re soaked in vodka.

In other words, it’s more about the habit than it is the sensitivity to sounds. This revelation unlocks a lot of new possibilities.

Penn Jilette (of Penn and Teller) says that when he lost 300 lbs, he ate nothing but potatoes for two weeks and it reset his taste buds. He said his unhealthy eating habits were not because he enjoyed unhealthy food more; rather, it was just his habit to eat food that wasn’t good for him. Changing the pattern seemingly changed his preference.

Habits, that’s it. Nothing to be afraid of. Just your own brain making things easier and more difficult for you simultaneously.