I am excruciatingly sensitive to noise: I always carry earplugs and fantasize about living in the middle of the woods. Is the problem with me or with the world?
As a misophone [“hater of sounds”], I’m in pretty good company. Kant hated noise, as did Proust, Kafka, and Darwin—and even, ironically, Wagner. Kant fled his lodgings on account of a crowing rooster, and Proust went so far as to line his bedroom with cork. Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus secluded themselves in large private parks, and had only to contend with the baby-like cries of hedgehogs and maybe the murderous screams of vixens. The sounds of nature, I find, are always more bearable: I onced toured Cophenhagen Zoo—the only thing open on a Monday—and noted that the most disturbing cries came from the human children.
Young children scream and cry all the time because they haven’t yet learnt how to read. That’s how I’d be without books.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) wrote an essay, On Noise, in which he linked misophonia with intellect and creativity:
Certainly there are people, nay, very many, who will smile at [my predicament], because they are not sensitive to noise; it is precisely these people, however, who are not sensitive to argument, thought, poetry or art, in short, to any kind of intellectual impression: a fact to be assigned to the coarse quality and strong texture of their brain tissues.
Schopenhauer railed hardest against the cracking of whips in narrow resounding streets (the 19th century equivalent of revving motorbikes): “Hammering, the barking of dogs, and the screaming of children are abominable; but it is only [his emphasis] the cracking of a whip that is the true murderer of thought.” To him, the cracking of whips was all the more unbearable for being unnecessary and, worse than unnecessary, useless.
Not every sound is noise. I enjoy certain natural sounds such as birds singing, a stream burbling, or waves lapping or breaking; but not, say, an air conditioner humming (unless it is very hot outside), children crying, or people shouting or talking without saying anything useful, interesting, or amusing. If I believe that something is important or meaningful or beautiful, the sound that it makes is much less likely to constitute noise; and contrariwise if I think that it is ugly or meaningless or destructive. Noise, then, is whatever I don’t think is worth hearing, and exists on a spectrum. In the final analysis, it is whatever ends up dissipating rather than concentrating or conserving my energies.
For Schopenhauer, genius is precisely this: the ability of the mind to concentrate itself on a single point and object. But as soon as this bunched-up mind is interrupted or distracted or dispersed, it is no better than an ordinary mind. It is, says Schopenhauer, as with a large diamond, which, if shattered, loses most of its value; or as with an army, which, if dispersed, loses most of its power. It is not merely a matter of genius but also of happiness, because, as every creative person knows, there is no happiness greater than that of the mind at play. Aristotle famously conceived of God, the traditional fount of all reason, as a mind that turns blissfully upon itself. In contrast, people who are too frightened to put two and two together, or are unable to, use noise to help occupy and numb their minds (see my related post on the psychology of music in restaurants).
Was Schopenhauer being fanciful in linking misophonia with intellect and creativity? In recent years, researchers at Northwestern University have found that real-world creativity (although not, interestingly, academic test scores) may be associated with a reduced ability to filter “irrelevant” sensory information. “Leaky” sensory gating may help our brains integrate ideas that are outside the focus of our attention and thereby promote associative and creative thinking. But if these extraneous ideas are, well, noise, it can also cripple us. The geniotic brain is like a high-compression engine, which knocks if fuelled with lower octane gasoline, i.e. nonsense. Even if he might have overstated his case, Schopenhauer, it seems, was on to something.
There was, however, one singular genius who was not disturbed by noise: Seneca, the famous Stoic philosopher and infamous tutor and adviser to the mad emperor Nero, who, in the end, obliged his hapless mentor to commit suicide.
In my next post, I will look at Seneca’s timeless advice for coping with noise.
- Schopenhauer, A (1851): Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol 2, Ch 30, On Din and Noise.
- Zabelina DL et al (2015): Creativity and sensory gating indexed by the P50: Selective versus leaky sensory gating in divergent thinkers and creative achievers. Neuropsychologia 69:77-84.