Silence, Please: the Psychological Effects of Noise Pollution

Most of the time we don’t even consider how much noise actually surrounds us. Loud and sudden noises in your immediate environment are likely to be rare, but the distant noise of traffic, construction, people surrounding you, and various kinds of dinging and ringing all contribute to an environment polluted by noise. Worst of all, this hum we’ve grown accustomed to bustles 24/7, meaning that the average city dweller is chronically exposed to noise. This cannot go without serious effect on our mental health and wellbeing, although we may not even be recognizing it as we go about our day-to-day. Read on to find out more about the ways in which noise pollution affects the psyche.

Sleep disturbance

The thing is, sleep needs to be uninterrupted and of high quality so that all the processes that regulate our entire system can progress smoothly. This consequently ensures our overall health and wellbeing, but high-quality sleep is a luxury for many people, and noise pollution is a common culprit – again, sometimes without people realizing it.

Things such as the hum of the traffic, activity from your upstairs neighbor, your partner’s gentle snoring, or hearing the elevator inside your building all affect the quality of your sleep and interfere with the progression of sleep cycles. We need to do our best to eliminate noise pollution during the night time in order to ensure proper mental and physiological functioning. Measures such as wearing earplugs present an easy solution to the problem of chronic sleep disturbance, which is extremely dangerous as it presents a form of insomnia and makes it difficult to get through the day in every aspect – physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Impaired cognitive task performance

It’s clear how noise pollution makes it difficult to concentrate, and you’ve probably experienced this yourself. Many studies have been conducted to determine the effects of noise pollution on cognitive function, and they all point to the fact that noise pollution increases the risk of making errors while completing tasks, decreases motivation, disturbs reading attention as well as problem-solving and memory. Experimental conditions have identified the two types of memory deficits influenced by noise: recall of subject content and recall of incidental details. 

It’s clear how noise pollution makes it difficult to concentrate, and you’ve probably experienced this yourself. Many studies have been conducted to determine the effects of noise pollution on cognitive function, and they all point to the fact that noise pollution increases the risk of making errors while completing tasks, decreases motivation, disturbs reading attention as well as problem-solving and memory. Experimental conditions have identified the two types of memory deficits influenced by noise: recall of subject content and recall of incidental details. 

This presents an issue in the modern workplace, where the majority of offices have an open floor plan. In this type of environment, noise pollution is chronic and really just a part of the setting, making it more difficult to focus and inevitably causing a drop in productivity among employees.

But even more alarmingly, noise is a real problem in schools and it holds grave consequences for children’s learning and psychosocial development. It essentially affects children’s ability to focus and learn, and this relates both to the home and school. A study that examined noise levels and learning has shown this: children who learn in quieter classrooms have better academic performance. This research has shown that children in noisy classrooms are not only affected and annoyed by the noise itself, but their poor scores are also influenced by the fact that teachers simply can’t teach as much as they would in a quiet environment.

The bottom line: we have to use all the available resources and make decisions aimed to protect ourselves and our children from noise pollution if we want to thrive mentally and emotionally. Schools have to be soundproofed and located in quiet areas, but many homes would benefit from being soundproofed too. In situations where we can’t avoid a noisy environment, it’s best to wear noise-canceling earmuffs. This can help office workers achieve maximum productivity as well as aid children living in homes affected by transportation noise.

Stress and annoyance

The aforementioned points about noise pollution and impaired task performance are, in fact, heavily interlinked with noise-induced stress. Research on noise-stimulated office environments has shown that workers in noise-stimulated open-plan offices have higher levels of adrenaline – although they did not perceive their environment as more stressful than the groups in quiet offices did. The elevated levels of adrenaline essentially point to anxiety and a “flight or fight” response, where the stressed group within the study was quicker to give up on solving the unsolvable puzzles they were given. The elevated stress caused a deficit in motivation that consequently affects focus and cognitive performance.

The finding of this study can be translated to other environments, and it is inevitable that different levels of noise pollution cause annoyance. This is often the underlying phenomenon that results in mood changes, increasingly aggressive behavior, and social conflicts, both among children and adults.

So what’s the key takeaway here? In short, we’re simply not the same when we’re forced to live without the silence we so desperately need. And in our modern environment and lifestyle, actual silence has become one of the biggest luxuries. This is creating problems for city-dwellers globally, and some measures are already being taken to counter this issue – but they mainly concern noise from air traffic and the protection of airport neighborhoods. We’re optimistic that in the future, cities will be designed to minimize noise pollution and laws will help regulate it. For the time being, we have to take measures to avoid it or protect ourselves on our own. Because in the end, noise is not merely a nuisance, but rather a hazard to our mental health and wellbeing.

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash