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Stress and the Big City

Clive Thompson has a great article on stress in the big city:

And noise, all experts agree, makes New York an absolute carnival of stress. Gary Evans, a professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell who worked with Wener on the commuter study, recently studied an elementary school in the Bavarian region of Germany, near where an airport was being built. (It?s tricky to monitor the effects of noise in New York, because it never lets up.) Evans examined the children before and after construction, which allowed him to see how the arrival of persistent noise affected them.

The results were unsettling. Reading levels declined ?to a significant degree.? Why? Probably because the kids began screening out ambient noise to protect their sanity. Unfortunately, they also began screening out ambient conversation?which helps kids absorb language. What?s more, the children were more likely to give up on difficult tasks. Before the airport opened, they would attempt an insoluble puzzle?a standard experimental test?7.9 times on average before giving up; afterward, only 6.3 times. Other studies have shown that children lose six months of development for every extra ten decibels added to their learning environment, Evans notes.

I’ll just point out one irritant that drives me up the wall: commercials on loudspeakers in stores and public spaces. At my workplace, they pipe in CNN headline news both in the cafeteria and the restroom. And it’s loud! I value the ability to pursue my own thoughts, but commercial interruptions make this impossible.

As an introverted subjective personality, I tend to be more aware of (and more irritated by) my surroundings than the ordinary person. I wouldn’t think that city noise would be so irritating until once when I moved from a quiet apartment complex to one close to a factory that operated at night (to my chagrin). The brain has the ability to block out certain classes of ambient noises, but the knowledge that the noise is out there and can’t be controlled did cause some stress. (Fortunately, stereos can offset any amount of noise). Update: Lately, I’ve started listening to lectures and poetry readings ( Ginsberg’s “Howl,” etc) via earphones while shopping in places with nonstop commercials. Although it blocks out reality a bit, it just calms me down and provides invisible epiphanies in public places. (Click here for an mp3 of Ginsberg’s Howl–only cue it at the 40 minute work).

Clive Thompson of Collision Detection writes a lot of great science articles for a mainstream crowd. Also his blog finds a lot of stuff, such as an academic paper on the linguistics of the word “dude” (See the actual paper (PDF) and the home page for the dude project).

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