The Search for Quiet
Many introverts recoil from noise. Some thoughts about how to accommodate that tendency.
In a recent article about work-from-home staff being ordered back to the office, one woman wailed, “There’s so much commotion there, I can’t hear myself think!” Chances are, she was an introvert.
Scientists tell us that noise distracts introverts more than it does extroverts. In a study at Bishop’s University in Quebec, introverts became significantly more agitated by annoying sounds in their environment than extroverts did. The noise worsened the introverts’ ability to concentrate on a task, but had no such effect on the extroverts. Similarly, researchers at the University of Belgrade, Serbia found that introverts show greater sensitivity to noise around them. Not only did extroverts in that study adapt better to ambient noise, some even requested more noise in order to concentrate better on a boring task.
The same dynamics apply to noisy environments besides offices. Introverts feel more at ease in quieter restaurants, hotels, libraries and natural settings. It turns out that in today’s noisy world, a lot of resources can point you toward quieter places.
In the US, the National Park Service has created a map of sound levels across the country on an average summer day, highlighting spots where human-generated noise like traffic and aircraft in the sky are at a minimum. These include the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado and Haleakala National Park at the summit of Maui island, 10,000 feet above sea level.
The European Union likewise has produced a map of quiet locales within Europe, totaling around 18 percent of its area. As you would expect, the Scandinavian countries, with their low population density, show the highest proportion of spaces with low levels of noise pollution. But that study also noted quiet zones in some Alpine regions and some remote areas along the Mediterranean coast.
Less scientifically rigorous is a list of the ten quietest places on Earth published by Noise News. Their list includes an underwater cave in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Antarctica generally, a bog in England and, in the #1 spot, a Microsoft research lab in Washington state that’s insulated from all exterior sounds.
Don’t give up if you live in a city and can’t travel to any of those places! A friend who was studying at Columbia University in New York City once told me that to experience quiet he would go to The Cloisters, a museum in Upper Manhattan that showcases medieval works of art in a castle-like building with thick stone walls. At some public libraries around the country you can reserve – or just commandeer – a room designed for small meetings that is even quieter than the rest of that hushed building. Other hushed possibilities include botanical gardens, antiquarian bookstores, hospital chapels and cemeteries.
Of course, in the digital age numerous apps promise to reveal how quiet or noisy all kinds of places are. For instance, there’s SoundPrint, which invites you to use its decibel meter to determine the noisiness of a restaurant or bar, then upload your data. The HushCity app similarly uses crowdsourcing to identify quiet spaces around the world. See also this article in American Scientist on one man’s quest for the globe’s spots with the least sound. Expect a flurry of this type of information every year around International Noise Awareness Day, April 27.
The spot I call home feels like one of the quietest places I’ve ever experienced. By air reckoning, our house sits more than two miles from any road with sizeable traffic. Mid-morning, once school busses and work trucks are no longer rumbling here and there, the Sound Meter app gave me an outdoor reading of around 24 decibels, considerably less than the 42 decibels of a typical library. Normally when I walk I hear just my own footfalls, bird chirps and the scurrying of squirrels and chipmunks. To me, that’s enchanting.
What’s your quiet place?