In the early 20th century, John B. Watson, an American psychologist, suggested that infants feel a few emotions. The dominant ones are love, rage and fear. Watson said infants feel fear for two reasons: when they experience a loss of body support and when they hear a sudden, loud noise.
Though much of his work has been challenged since, especially his denial of the mind and consciousness, his observation that noise can spark powerful emotional impulses has been corroborated by research across the board.
EFFECTS ON THE BODY
Experts recognise that the noise factor has a bearing on our stress levels, especially in urban spaces. “In today’s world, amid great noise of our clustered, urban spaces, where we constantly seem in friction with others,” says Dr Amit Sen of Delhi, “a particular system is aroused where you are almost always perceiving a threat in the environment. This state of being aroused, this anxious, even fearful state starts having detrimental effects on your mind, of course, but also on the body.”
Other observations are more acute. Dr Sanjeev Jain of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru, tells how the level of noise we are exposed to, among other factors, can profoundly show up in how the body responds to medicines, for instance.
“If you give anti-anxiety drugs to someone who is living in an urban area, it will not have a great effect on them,” he says. “However, if you give the same drug to someone coming from a village area or forest background, they may find it difficult to wake up for two days.”
The lack of stimulus or lack of noise in their environment has changed their brain in such a way that it makes such people very sensitive to these drugs, whereas people who live in urban spaces, who drink four cups of coffee in a day or are exposed to noise, their bodies seem more numb to the effects of the drug, explains Jain. “Noise affects us tremendously,” he concludes.
POSSIBLE EFFECTS ON THE BRAIN
The brain is never really at rest. Recent research with new imaging shows that though it may vary in intensity, there is constant, sustained electrical activity or “noise” in the brain, depending on what state of activity or relaxation we are in.
Noise, quite simply, is agitation, either as a cause or as an effect of some disturbance. When we are stressed, confused or angry, this noise increases manifold and can begin to interfere with cognition, behaviour and functioning.
CP, 39, for instance, suffered from a bout of major depression. He mentions how his functioning was affected. “I would be looking for an object that was right in front of me, but would not see it, because there was so much stuff going on in my mind,” he says. “This happened for several months, especially when the noise in my brain was peaking.” Patients suffering from Alzheimer’s often report a similar state in which they might look through things right in front of them.
Though the two are completely different disorders, it is interesting to note the role of noise in the brain. The effect of noise from our external environment can stir fear in the brain, as in Watson’s observation of the infant. Fear, in turn, causes agitation that translates as more noise in the brain.
It might, therefore, help us, as individuals and as society, to regulate the levels of noise we generate around us. Social media could be a starting point.