Sounding it out: ‘Listening to white noise put my life back on track’

Megan Nolan was searching for a way to switch off the stresses of modern life. Then she discovered white noise. Here, she charts how the flat frequencies helped her cope

Late last year Spotify presented me with my Top 100 most listened to tracks of 2018 and, as ever when I’m presented with some unknown version of myself, I couldn’t wait to analyse it. Like a dog returning to its vomit, nothing fascinates me more than my own alien excretions. I could spend the rest of my life contorting my brain to view tagged pictures of myself, attempting to understand how others see me. But there it was, above the other great heroes of my year, Leonard Cohen and Ariana Grande. In the number one spot was White Noise. Not just White Noise – “White Noise For Babies”. I had listened to nothing all year as much as I had listened to flat soundscapes designed to soothe infants.

I first came to white noise shortly after I moved to London from Dublin. I left Ireland in a hurry, with no good plans in place, no real reason to have come, and so lived for two years in a constant stressful flux. I worked temp jobs, I sub-let my bedroom, I relied on the generosity of my best friend to top up my Oyster card when I had nothing left. I felt flayed. London left nothing to the imagination.

It wasn’t as though I had moved from a village – Dublin is a major city, after all, and I’d spent six years there after leaving home – but I was not prepared for what it felt like to constantly be physically shoved against strangers, how you could hear their mouth noises and video games and stupid voice notes all the time. How it was normal to live with five people instead of one or two, and how they might all be near you when you wanted to make a cup of tea at midnight. How there was never a moment of any day when you were alone until you climbed into your bed still sticky from fumes and the terrible food you conceded to eat on the journey back – weeping pathetically into your gummy M&S wrap – and how that aloneness, though you’d longed for it all day, would feel so embarrassing and awful.

That was when I began to listen to white noise. I had complained to a friend that my bedroom allowed all the noise of my household into it when I was trying to work and she suggested I listen to rain sounds. It started doing so there at my desk when I was writing, and then the tube to whatever office I was temping at, and the bus from that office to a terrible date, and then again on the dawn journey home.

When the rain noises didn’t seem to quite block out my surroundings any more I moved on to pure white noise, which combines aural frequencies to produce a gratifyingly neutral effect. The panic attacks I was accustomed to became fewer and fewer. When I stood on the tube grasping the clammy handrail at 7am, my heart rarely hammered as it once had. The noise kept everything more or less the same, obliterating my nerves. I squeezed my eyes shut and it was almost like not being alive at all.

Noise pollution is no joke. The World Health Organisation estimates that 1m healthy life years are lost per year in Europe to traffic noise. Aircraft noise is proven to negatively impact the reading skills of children who live near airports. As well as the broad impact on social health, sufferers of sound sensitivity have high levels of comorbidity with anxiety and depression, and sufferers of post- traumatic stress disorder have been shown to have heightened brain responses to sudden sounds.

My boyfriend laughs at me sometimes out of genuine bemusement. He is an amazingly sane and un-neurotic individual. A motorbike will zoom past too suddenly. On holiday, in our hotel, a cleaner knocks on the door to ask if we want the room serviced and I outright scream with shock. An insect will buzz too loudly in my ear.

“Oh baby,” he said, after I shouted at that bluebottle, “you’re so terrified by the world.”

After I learned to love white noise for what it did for me in public, I began to love it in private, too. Once, while enduring a panic attack in bed having checked my bank balance, I turned it on. It was a Sunday early evening, my worst time; the time at which the world you’ve been able to deny for a sweet evening or two begins to grind its gears again. I put a white noise playlist on my headphones and lay there under the heavy sheet of it until my body stopped shuddering and I was feeling as blank as the sound itself. I was able to sleep because it had exhausted me and, therefore, I was able to work the next day, and for that alone I began to consider it a kind of magic.

A 2018 study published by Oxford University Press showed white noise can improve functioning in adults with attention deficit disorder. Another in the same year in South Korea suggested weighted white noise – which attempts to account for the particular wave frequencies found in sufferers of depression – can have a positive effect. In Taiwan, a 2018 survey of people living with dementia showed it can provide a simple way to reduce their agitation.

White noise itself is simply a random mixture of sound frequencies, but what it’s used for by me and others like me is often an attempt at a kind of augmented auditory life. It’s a modern, western habit that is too new in general populations for there yet to be much solid research on its effects. But adapting to a stressful environment by creating a personal soundscape is nothing new.

Rupert Cox is an anthropologist concerned with aural experiences and the effect of noise on human health and the environment. He has conducted long-term research in Japan and Guam. He tells me about a family in Tokyo that remains living and working on their farm adjacent to the runway at Narita Airport, decades after fierce clashes erupted between government and civilians over its establishment. “They built a soundproof room for themselves to sleep in. What’s interesting is that, of course, the sleeping is at night when the planes aren’t flying. Even so, they need this environment to sleep properly. The effects of noise on health are often experienced as sleep disorders. They’ve created an environment that’s obviously very quiet, but it’s more than just quiet. It produces its own particular sort of sound where all you can hear is yourself.”

On the island of Okinawa, the unpredictable and overwhelming noise of jets belonging to the US military base cause health problems for more than 17,000 people in the vicinity and is estimated to trigger about 10 fatal heart attacks a year. Cox’s Japanese colleague observed that the engine noise triggers memories of the Pacific War. People find ways to focus on natural noise to offset the military noise intrusion, to focus on the sound of the sea and summer winds. One individual, a war survivor hikes with his wife to the north of the island, to a rainforest.

A film made by Cox and his collaborators about their research was named Zawawa, an onomatopoeic word to describe the sound of sugar cane fields and the noise of leaves wrapping themselves around stalks. It was also written into a song by the postwar Japanese composer Naohiko Terashima, the word repeated 42 times. The people of the island, Cox says, are always playing and listening to music.

What white noise does for me when I’m listening to it alone in bed at night is to saturate my brain. It not only drowns out my thoughts, but doesn’t actually allow them to exist at all for the time that I’m listening. And as any person who’s ever been mad will tell you, that’s the end goal when you’re suffering.

The story of me and white noise is also the story of me and half a lifetime’s worth of ways to avoid going mad. It’s the story of mental chaos and haphazard, amateur ways you find to quiet it down. There were other attempted methods before white noise came along. There was drinking, of course. If there’s a thought which can’t be silenced by a certain amount of alcohol, I have yet to find it. Even the potential of alcohol can do it for me most of the time. A large glass of red wine set in front of me can be calming, even when I don’t drink it. But we know how that ends.

There was sex, too, because sex works like drinking does. It lets you be entirely in one moment without any of the moments that preceded it or those which will follow coming in the edges. But the sex was often with men, and men in their 20s who want casual sex are usually more trouble than they’re worth – even for one night.

There was physical self-injury. A doctor told me once that instead of doing what I did, I should press an ice cube to my forearm, or I should flick an elastic band against my wrist. I nearly laughed in his face.

White noise is the only self-medication I have found that does me no actual harm. There are other versions of what it is – the kinds of television and films I watch when I am too tired or depressed to think are a kind of white noise. They, too, are a means to saturate myself totally, with nothing that has the ability to make me feel or think. When I was most depressed I put a Mad Men box set on every night for a year as I tried fruitlessly to sleep, not able to bear the idea of one moment without someone else’s voice filling my head.

White noise has helped me to be still, avoid the ridiculous ice cubes and rubber bands and those even worse things. And yet, it worries me that I am pumping so much absence into myself. It worries me that I am drowning out thoughts instead of learning to hear them.

I can’t imagine my life without white noise now, but I think quite a lot about what it means, and whether I should be all right with depending on it. I think that about everything I depend on, though, to be fair. I think it even about personal relationships. What about when everyone I love dies, I think –what am I doing depending on them, when they’re just going to die? Part of what makes me unwell, I’ve come to understand, is my inability to appreciate anything which makes me less unwell.

I think it about medication, too, which I have not taken in almost a year. I have always felt guilty taking antidepressants, because it feels to me that my sickness is not chemical but emotional, that the things that make me sick are also part of the things that make me happy. There are things I will always question about whether medication should be prescribed for problems that seem more social than physiological. And about just how mentally present a human should expect themselves to be, about what I owe myself and the people around me, if it’s right or wrong to forcibly ignore my material reality quite so often. Sometimes I have needed pills to get me out of bed in the morning. Right now I don’t, but I know I probably will again, that there will be times when no noise I can find will be loud enough.

For now, maybe it’s all right that white noise helps me sleep, helps me travel, helps me be still. Maybe it’s all right to be comforted, however saccharine and simple that comfort, to put on a playlist for babies, to wait for other, different, noises that might come later. To keep still and be very quiet, until they are ready to come clear.

Megan Nolan’s debut novel Acts of Desperation will be published by Jonathan Cape in 2021


Megan Nolan

The GuardianTramp

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