Some Sensitive Ears Never Learn to Tune Out City Noise

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Photo: Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

Have you heard? New York is a noisy place. Consider subway platforms, for instance, which can top 100 decibels, the same volume as a jet taking off. And yet most city dwellers adapt; some even miss the noise when they’re somewhere quieter, requiring the use of apps or Spotify playlists that re-create “ambient street sounds” to lull themselves to sleep in the suburbs.

These people mystify me. I’ve lived here for more than 20 years, and I’ve never learned to tune the city out. Even sleep doesn’t free me — I use earplugs and still wake up a few times a night when I hear horns or sirens. What am I doing wrong? Why are some people able to ignore or adapt to city noise, while others just can’t?

The experts assure me that hyperaware ears like mine mean well. It’s a self-protective mechanism, explained Zachary Rosenthal, director of the sensory processing and emotion regulation program at Duke University. “Noises are automatically being processed by our brains, even when we are not consciously aware that this is happening,” he said. “Without our brains doing this, we could have all sorts of untoward things happen to us.” Maybe, he suggested, my inability to adapt to city noise can be explained by the growing literature on misophonia, a sound-processing disorder that causes some people to experience a strong aversion, or even an intense fight-or-flight response, to the seemingly innocuous sounds of others eating, chewing, or clearing their throats.

Maybe. Jennifer Brout, a clinical psychologist and founder of Misophonia International, an online hub of articles and forums on the topic, doesn’t think it’s exactly the same thing, although she says that some of the emerging research on misophonia may help explain my strong aversion to city noise. (Brout launched the website because she suffers from misophonia herself.) “A siren is a loud noise that is meant to alert people,” she told me. People with misophonia, in comparison, tend to be bothered by sounds that are much more mundane, like a nearby co-worker’s aggressive typing style. Put another way, it’s normal to be attentive to something that is supposed to grab your attention — like a siren – so that alone isn’t a sign of misophonia. “Having said that, a person with any kind of sound sensitivity will have a stronger reaction to the siren,” she said. “That person may feel more startled by the noise than others, and it may take a longer time for their nervous systems to calm down.”

As it turns out, there is a physiological reason misophonics react so strongly to certain sounds, and it may also apply to urban noise-haters like me. After scanning the brains of misophonia sufferers, Newcastle University scientists identified “an abnormality in their emotional control mechanism.” Brout translates: “That study demonstrates that the connections [in the brains of people with misophonia] are stronger between the auditory parts of the brain and the parts of the brain that mediate the fight-or-flight response, and the parts of the brain that process whether a sound is positive or negative,” she said.

So there’s one theory. Perhaps I am a tad misophonic, which means my brain may work a little differently than someone who doesn’t pay much attention to city sounds. Another theory: I may be able to blame my parents. Noise sensitivity is likely hereditary, with an estimated heritability of 36 percent, according to a study from the University of Helsinki. (That study also links heightened noise sensitivity to musical aptitude, and a propensity to always be plugged into music, something that certainly rings true for me.)

But here’s something else about those of us are oversensitive to city sounds: In a way, we’re right. Now in her early 80s, environmental psychologist Arline Bronzaft spent decades upon decades of her career advocating for a less noisy New York. She was especially concerned about the harmful effects of subway noise and travel on mental health. (She and I have that in common.) In 1975, she authored a study, published in the Journal of Environment and Behavior, which examined the effect of noise on the reading ability of children in a city school near elevated subway tracks. She discovered students in classrooms facing the tracks couldn’t read nearly as well as children on the other side of the building. They also suffered “degradation in quality of task performance, lowered frustration tolerance, and impaired ability to resolve cognitive conflict.” After Bronzaft’s findings were published, the city cushioned the subway rails with rubber pads, and the school added insulation panels onto their classroom ceilings. When she went back to that school a few years later, reading levels of kids on both sides of the school had evened out.

Over the years, many other studies have been done on the wear and tear noise pollution causes our health; taken together, they suggest that noisiness does indeed have a deleterious effect on physical and mental health, even for those who think the city clamor isn’t bothering them. For example, a 2011 European study published by the World Health Organization concluded that noise pollution is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The researchers also found that excessive noisiness can contribute to tinnitus, or chronic ear ringing, which causes its own set of problems: sleep disturbance, anxiety, and depression, to name just a few. And, in line with Bronzaft’s findings, the report suggested that noise pollution reduces cognitive ability in school-age children, even long after they stop hearing it.

The evidence, in other words, seems to side with sensitive ears like mine. “People use the phrase, ‘I get used to it — I walk the streets and I get used to the noise,’” Bronzaft told the New York Times in 2013. “When you’re dealing with something, you’re using energy to cope with the situation. Guess what? That’s wear and tear on your body. So, when you hear someone say, ‘I’m dealing with it,’ I say, ‘Yes, but at what cost?’”

It feels nice to be right, but I still have to live here. So, short of packing up my whole life for a quieter place, how can I get used to — or learn to block out — noise? Noise-cancellation headphones are an obvious option, but if the urban cacophony is really bothering you, it might be worth a visit to an audiologist. Rosenthal also suggests meditation, mindfulness, or yoga, “to sharpen your ability to steer attention toward or away from particular stimuli with intentionality.”

There’s evidence to support that recommendation. In 2013, Brown University scientists published a paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience claiming those who’ve learned to practice mindfulness meditation develop a kind of “volume knob,” which controls the brain waves that regulate how physical sensations are processed. “Meditators learn not only to control what specific body sensations they pay attention to,” the study authors write, “but also how to regulate attention so that it does not become biased toward negative physical sensations, such as chronic pain.” That said, good old-fashioned earplugs will help, too, Rosenthal added. I happen to have some extras, which I’m happy to donate to the worthy cause of personal peace and quiet.

Some Sensitive Ears Never Learn to Tune Out City Noise