It’s reputed that David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam serial killer who terrorized New York City in the mid-70’s, was driven to his .44 caliber crimes by Harvey, a black Labrador retriever owned by his next door neighbor. I’ve been driven to the brink by a neighbor’s barking dog a time or two, so the story doesn’t seem so far-fetched to me.
Sudden, loud noise is something that we are born with an automatic response to: limbic fear – a hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) reaction. And for good reason: seldom does loud, sudden or surprising noise bring good news with it. The sound of an AK-47 machine gun, for example, rarely brings a smile to anyone’s face. In Seattle, squealing car tires on wet asphalt invariably triggers a hyper-sensitive vigilance. And out here on Whidbey Island, the sound of timber cracking is often cause for serious concern – falling limbs are known as Widowmakers up around these parts.
When I pay close attention to how loud or unexpected noise affects me somatically, what I notice is that my body usually generates large and small spurts of adrenaline in response. My muscles tense, and I often end up withholding an outbreath. I’ve written previously about the potential adverse effects of interrupted breathing patterns on health and well-being, but I think the biggest challenge with noise may be how powerfully it negatively affects us without us even being aware of it. It’s subtly and not-so-silently stressful, which is where a stress-monitoring wristwatch type device like the Affectiva might come in handy.
The inhibiting effects of stress on neural growth and connectivity are well-documented by folks like Bruce McEwen (The End of Stress as We Know It), Robert Sapolsky (Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers), Robert Scaer (The Body Bears the Burden) and J. Douglas Bremner (Does Stress Damage the Brain?). Essentially, chronic stress makes us stupid.
Because the brain pan is a confined space, there is only so much room available for neurons to build out a network and make connections. The homunculus depicted at the right provides us with a graphic representation size-wise as to how that space is generally allocated. What that representation doesn’t show is how noise that repeatedly activates the limbic system and generates large and small levels of chronic stress, requires more neurons to be added to the limbic structures in the brain, for example, to the hippocampus – integral for learning and reactive memory. The downside however, is that limbic neurons are added at the expense of adding to other beneficial areas, for instance, the Prefrontal Cortex from where Executive Function is primarily orchestrated. The result: you end up with kids who have a difficult time paying attention, sitting still, keeping track of time and organizing and carrying out school assignments.
Loud Enough to Wake the Dead
When she was very young, after a babysitter canceled at the last minute, I made the mistake of taking my daughter Amanda to a Stanford-Cal basketball game one Saturday afternoon. Our seats were on the floor very close to the Stanford bandbox. Within a very few minutes I discovered that Amanda was sound asleep. My intuitive sense is that she was more unconscious than simply sleeping. Going unconscious was the only defense her brain possessed to keep out sounds loud enough to shake the reinforced concrete pillars at Maples Pavilion.
Fortunately, the exposure did not occur at a critical “open window” period in the development of her vulnerable brain. We know from research that a perpetually noisy workplace doubles the risk of heart disease. Is it too far a stretch to imagine that a perpetually or unpredictably noisy home environment might also impact and compromise children’s health?
There is also concern that the noise levels in many hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Units actually might adversely affect development during critical periods. And how many parents would ever realize their child’s development may have been compromised?
When in Doubt, Don’t Shout
One loud noise that I’m convinced negatively impacts early brain development is one I’ve written about before: a parent’s yelling voice. To test my theory, have someone unexpectedly yell at you. Then pay close attention to what happens in your body. Then multiply that adrenaline surge you feel times ten. That’s the impact it very likely has on an immature, unfolding neural network in our children. If you are a yeller, you would serve yourself and your children well by beginning to pay close attention to the effect your yelling has on both you and your children.
The Power of Peaceful Environs
We also know from research that peace and tranquility have a very positive effect on the brain. So does soothing music. Both produce many more neural connections across larger areas of neural real estate than do loud or disruptive environments. Had David Berkowitz lived out at Montauk at the end of Long Island instead of Yonkers, the crimes he committed very likely would have never come to pass.