What Silence Actually Sounds Like

The quietest place on the planet sits inside an ivy covered Minneapolis building, right across from a liquor store.

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The silence crashes over me in heavy waves. It’s so absolute it starts working on me. First comes a noticeable change in pressure that pushes in on my ears, followed by an incessant ringing—the kind that feels like I’ve just been front row at a rock concert and finally made it to the quiet parking lot after it’s over. Only I haven’t.

I’m just adjusting to sitting in the world’s quietest room.

It’s about the size of a small bedroom. Big enough for a couple of people to fit in comfortably, but small enough to nearly activate my claustrophobia, The walls, ceiling, and floor beneath the suspended platform I’m on are lined with fiberglass wedges that absorb almost 100% of any noise created inside the room.

In scientific terms, the chamber sits at about -13 decibels. For reference, according to the CDC, a normal conversation is 60 decibels; a whisper: 30. It’s called an anechoic—meaning echo-free—chamber for a reason. I sit in the room for 20 minutes. To get the full experience, the lights are off. The silence is unnerving.

The world’s quietest room is tucked inside a nondescript gray building covered in overgrown ivy, a quick 10 minute drive south of downtown Minneapolis. There’s a liquor store across the street. A park nearby. Plenty of houses. It’s the type of place that wouldn’t warrant a head turn as you drove by. There’s no clue the chamber, along with the rest of Orfield Labs, the nation’s only multi-sensory design lab, is even here. 

In some ways, that’s perfect. One of the things Orfield studies is perception, what we notice, what we hear. 

“When you’re out in the real world, what anchors you is what you’re seeing or hearing,” says Emma Orfield, one of the lab researchers and granddaughter of its founder, Steven J. Orfield. “When you’re in the chamber, there isn’t much to detect aurally, and there isn’t much to detect visually.”

As the ringing in my ears subsides, I begin to see things in the dark. Splotches of color flash before my eyes—or do they? A few more minutes go by and I start to turn my neck, only to hear the tendons and muscles rubbing against each other as I do so.

I get up from the chair and lay down on the floor of the chamber to get as still as possible. Just as I start to feel what’s possibly the most relaxed I’ve ever been, something knocks into my foot, and I bolt upright. It’s the door opening, and the light in the chamber switches back on. Emma tells me it’s been 20 minutes. She also could have told me I’d been in there for three hours and I would’ve believed her. I stand up and follow her out of the chamber to see the rest of the lab, a little disoriented.

Noise is bad for your health

Everything makes noise—a car, a fan, the neighbor’s barking dog. We’re awash in noise. Phones are constantly chiming. Sirens are always blaring. Music is seemingly ubiquitous, always leaking from some speaker somewhere. Unsurprisingly, according to the EPA, millions of people in the U.S. are impacted by noise pollution—unwanted or disturbing sound.

All of these sounds add up to levels that can be dangerous for humans. Too much noise—whether a loud blast or extended exposure—can cause stress, high blood pressure, and of course, noise-induced hearing loss. The CDC estimates that 17% of adults aged 20-69 years have suffered permanent hearing damage. 

But according to Erica Walker, assistant professor of epidemiology at Brown University, noise can cause even more serious issues. “Constant stimulation of this stress response can lead to the development of risk factors that put you at increased risk for some serious cardiovascular diseases like hypertension,” Walker says. “From a mental health perspective, noise can lead to anxiety and depression.”

Today, there doesn’t seem to be an escape from sound, but maybe thereshould. When we take the earbuds out, we can actually see some health benefits. Silence has been proven to be good for the brain. In a study at Duke University in 2015, researchers played a variety of different sounds for mice—classical music, white noise, mice pup sounds, and silence—and found that silence was the only stimulus that promoted new neuron growth. In other words: silence is healing.

We live multi-sensory lives

In a matter of 20 steps, I’ve gone from being soothed to getting sucker punched in the ears. Stepping outside of the quietest room on Earth, I walk into the reverberation chamber—the complete opposite of the peaceful, silent oasis I just left. The concrete walls are painted bright white. Sheets of metal are positioned in the corners to deflect sound waves. The room is so loud that any sound can echo for up to six seconds.

I stand in the middle and clap. Unlike the calm and comforting waves of silence in the anechoic chamber, this time, the echo of my clap causes me to wince. Emma says this is the prime location for testing products like types of flooring used in apartments to determine how they will absorb the sound of footsteps in the unit above.

“In the design of furniture and products, there’s very little science involved,” Emma says.

Architects and product designers normally rely on their own intuition, Emma says. That’s where the lab comes in. They bridge that gap between science and design. Researchers at the lab have worked on things like surgical devices to make them quieter. But it’s not just sound that the lab’s research focuses on. They look at how lighting affects visibility in places like senior living homes, and how patterned carpet can impact how older people with poor vision perceive their living environment.

Orfield Labs is one of the few places that test the extremes. It has a long history of doing so. Steven J. Orfield founded the labs in the 1970s as a way to expand on his interest in how science impacts product design. But the anechoic chamber wasn’t originally part of the testing regime. It took a couple of decades before the chamber found its way to suburban Minneapolis. Originally, it was located at a Sunbeam Products appliance research center in Chicago. Sunbeam used the chamber to make kitchen and household appliances quieter. Once that lab closed down, the operations moving to Japan, the chamber went on the market in the 1980s.

“My grandfather, being kind of an eccentric person…decided to go down and he bought it,” Emma says. “At the time, his brother was working at the University of Chicago. And he thought, ‘Let’s hire the University of Chicago football team to dismantle the anechoic chamber, put it into three semi trucks and drive back to Minneapolis.’”

The pieces of the chamber sat in storage for a few years until Orfield Labs moved into a facility big enough to accommodate the chamber. Eventually, they started piecing it all together. It was a process, mainly because the anechoic chamber is, as Emma puts it, “a room within a room within a room.” First, there’s an outer room that’s made up of concrete about a foot thick. Then there’s a steel outer chamber that houses an inner chamber suspended by airplane cable to ensure footsteps are carefully and silently absorbed by the fiberglass walls. No vibrations, no noise. 

Which is, of course, perfect for all of Orfield’s clients that want to test products. But it also can be good for people. Emma often works with folks who have conditions that result from being around very loud noises for extended amounts of time. That level of exposure can result in things like PTSD. She talks about a man who was frequently around fighter jets and couldn’t rid himself of tinnitus.

“He spent about 45 minutes or an hour in the chamber and came out and it had completely reset his hearing,” Emma says.

It’s experiences like these that remind Emma of how important Orfield Labs’ research is. The anechoic chamber is the epitome of quiet in an increasingly noisy world. With it, Emma and the lab’s research aims to help people be more comfortable with their surroundings.

“[The anechoic chamber is] this incredible tool that has become a metaphor for a lot of what we do,” Emma says. “Most people don’t even know the value of silence.”

Silence in the real world

Walking out of the lab, I realize how overstimulated my ears are. Even the everyday, mundane sounds are bothering me. My car door as it slams shut. The radio on in the background as I drive. The karaoke machine my siblings are screaming into as I walk in the door.

It’s all too much to handle after sitting in the quietest place on the planet, so I head to my bedroom. It’s the place in my parents’ house most like the anechoic chamber. The carpet and bedding absorb most of the sound, but I can still hear the distant beat of the karaoke machine. 

It will have to do. I have some neurons to regrow.

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