“Beware of noise!”: How to protect your hearing and psyche


Constant noise is a problem on the same scale as air pollution. Noise pollution causes serious damage to the health and quality of life of people. Where does it come from and how to protect yourself from harmful sounds?

In the era of noise pollution, when we live in an atmosphere of constant background noise, especially if we live in big cities, it is necessary to know how to take care of hearing, deal with noise in everyday and work life. Otolaryngologist Svetlana Ryabova spoke about the difference between noise and sound, what level of noise is harmful, what should be avoided in order to maintain health.

Everything you wanted to know about noise

Can you please explain what is the difference between noise and sound? What are the boundaries?

Sound is mechanical vibrations that propagate in an elastic medium: air, water, a solid body, and are perceived by our hearing organ – the ear. Noise is a sound in which the change in acoustic pressure perceived by the ear is random and repeats at different intervals. Thus, noise is a sound that adversely affects the human body.

From a physiological point of view, low, medium and high sounds are distinguished. The oscillations cover a huge frequency range: from 1 to 16 Hz – inaudible sounds (infrasound); from 16 to 20 thousand Hz – audible sounds, and over 20 thousand Hz – ultrasound. The area of ​​perceived sounds, that is, the border of the greatest sensitivity of the human ear, is between the threshold of sensitivity and the threshold of pain and is 130 dB. The sound pressure in this case is so great that it is perceived not as a sound, but as pain.

What processes are triggered in the ears/inner ear when we hear unpleasant noises?

Prolonged noise adversely affects the hearing organs, reducing the sensitivity to sound. This leads to early hearing loss by the type of sound perception, that is, to sensorineural hearing loss.

If a person hears noise on an ongoing basis, can this provoke the development of chronic diseases? What are these diseases?

Noise has an accumulative effect, that is, acoustic stimuli, accumulating in the body, increasingly depress the nervous system. If loud sounds surround us every day, for example, in the subway, a person gradually ceases to perceive quiet ones, losing hearing and loosening the nervous system.

The noise of the audio range leads to a decrease in attention and an increase in errors during the performance of various types of work. Noise depresses the central nervous system, causes changes in the rate of breathing and heart rate, contributes to metabolic disorders, the occurrence of cardiovascular diseases, stomach ulcers, and hypertension.

Does noise cause chronic fatigue? How to deal with it?

Yes, constant exposure to noise can make you feel chronically tired. In a person under the influence of constant noise, sleep is significantly disturbed, it becomes superficial. After such a dream, a person feels tired and has a headache. Constant lack of sleep leads to chronic overwork.

Can an aggressive sound environment cause aggressive human behavior? How is this related?

One of the secrets of the success of rock music is the emergence of the so-called noise intoxication. Under the influence of noise from 85 to 90 dB, hearing sensitivity decreases at high frequencies, the most sensitive for the human body, noise above 110 dB leads to noise intoxication and, as a result, to aggression.

Why is there so little talk about noise pollution in Russia?

Probably because for many years no one was interested in the health of the population. We must pay tribute, in recent years, attention to this issue has intensified in Moscow. For example, active gardening of the Garden Ring is being carried out, and protective structures are being built along highways. It has been proven that green spaces reduce the level of street noise by 8-10 dB.

Residential buildings should be “moved away” from the sidewalks by 15-20 m, and the area around them must be landscaped. Right now, environmentalists are seriously raising the issue of the impact of noise on the human body. And in Russia, science began to develop, which has long been actively practiced in a number of European countries, such as Italy, Germany – Soundscape Ecology – acoustic ecology (ecology of the sound landscape).

Can it be said that people in a noisy city have worse hearing than those who live in quieter places?

Yes, you can. It is considered that the acceptable level of noise in the daytime is 55 dB. This level does not harm hearing even with constant exposure. Noise level during sleep is considered to be up to 40 dB. The noise level in neighborhoods and neighborhoods located along highways reaches 76,8 dB. Noise levels measured in residential areas with open windows facing highways are only 10–15 dB lower.

The noise level is growing along with the growth of cities (over the past few years, the average noise level emitted by transport has increased by 12-14 dB). Interestingly, a person in the natural environment never remains in complete silence. We are surrounded by natural noises – the sound of the surf, the sound of the forest, the sound of a stream, river, waterfall, the sound of wind in a mountain gorge. But we perceive all these noises as silence. This is how our hearing works.

In order to hear the “necessary”, our brain filters out natural noises. To analyze the speed of thought processes, the following interesting experiment was carried out: ten volunteers who agreed to take part in this study were asked to engage in mental work to various sounds.

It was required to solve 10 examples (from the multiplication table, for addition and subtraction with the transition through a dozen, to find an unknown variable). The results of the time for which 10 examples were solved in silence were taken as the norm. The following results were obtained:

  • When listening to the noise of a drill, the performance of the subjects was reduced by 18,3–21,6%;
  • When listening to the murmur of a stream and the singing of birds, only 2–5%;
  • A striking result was obtained when playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”: the counting speed increased by 7%.

These indicators tell us that different types of sounds affect a person in different ways: the monotonous noise of a drill slows down a person’s thought process by almost 20%, the noise of nature practically does not interfere with a person’s train of thought, and listening to calm classical music even has a beneficial effect on us , increasing the efficiency of the brain.

How does hearing change over time? How seriously and critically can hearing deteriorate if you live in a noisy city?

With the course of life, a natural hearing loss occurs, the so-called phenomenon – presbycusis. There are norms for hearing loss at certain frequencies after 50 years. But, with the constant influence of noise on the cochlear nerve (the nerve responsible for the transmission of sound impulses), the norm turns into pathology. According to Austrian scientists, noise in big cities reduces human life expectancy by 8-12 years!

Noise of what nature is the most harmful to the hearing organs, the body?

Too loud, sudden sound – a gunshot at close range or the noise of a jet engine – can damage the hearing aid. As an otolaryngologist, I have often experienced acute sensorineural hearing loss – essentially a contusion of the auditory nerve – after a shooting range or a successful hunt, and sometimes after a nightly disco.

Finally, what ways to give your ears a rest do you recommend?

As I said, it is necessary to protect yourself from loud music, limit your viewing of television programs. When doing noisy work, every hour you need to remember to take a 10-minute break. Pay attention to the volume with which you speak, it should not injure either you or the interlocutor. Learn to speak more quietly if you tend to communicate too emotionally. If possible, relax in nature more often – this way you will help both hearing and the nervous system.

In addition, as an otolaryngologist, can you comment on how and at what volume it is safe to listen to music with headphones?

The main problem with listening to music with headphones is that a person is not able to control the volume level. That is, it may seem to him that the music is playing quietly, but in fact he will have almost 100 decibels in his ears. As a result, today’s youth begin to have problems with hearing, as well as with health in general, already at the age of 30.

To avoid the development of deafness, you need to use high-quality headphones that prevent the penetration of extraneous noise and thus eliminate the need to increase the sound. The sound itself should not exceed the average level – 10 dB. You must listen to music on headphones for no more than 30 minutes, then pause for at least 10 minutes.

Noise suppressants

Many of us spend half of our lives in the office and it is not always possible to coexist with the noise in the workplace. Galina Carlson, regional director of Jabra (a company that manufactures solutions for the hearing impaired and professional headsets, part of the GN Group founded 150 years ago) in Russia, Ukraine, the CIS and Georgia, shares: “According to research by The Guardian, due to noise and subsequent interruptions, employees lose up to 86 minutes a day.”

Below are some tips from Galina Carlson on how employees can deal with noise in the office and concentrate effectively.

Move equipment as far as possible

Printer, copier, scanner and fax are present in any office space. Unfortunately, not every company thinks about the successful location of these devices. Convince the decision maker to make sure that the equipment is located in the farthest corner and does not create additional noise. If we are not talking about open space, but about separate small rooms, you can try to place noisy devices in the lobby or closer to the reception.

Keep meetings as quiet as possible

Often collective meetings are chaotic, after which the head will ache: colleagues interrupt each other, creating an unpleasant sound background. Everyone must learn to listen to their other meeting participants.

Observe the “hygienic rules of work”

There must be reasonable breaks in any work. If possible, go out for a breath of fresh air, switch from a noisy environment – so the load on the nervous system will be reduced. Unless, of course, your office is located near a busy highway, where the noise will hurt you just as much.

Go radical – try working from home at times

If your company culture allows, consider working from home. You will be surprised how easy it is for you to focus on tasks, because colleagues will not distract you with various questions.

Choose the right music for concentration and relaxation

Obviously, not only “Moonlight Sonata” can have a positive effect on concentration. Assemble a playlist for times when you need to focus all your attention on an important matter. It should combine uplifting, inspirational music with fast tempos, and mix with neutral music. Listen to this “mix” for 90 minutes (with a break, which we wrote about earlier).

Then, during a 20-minute rest, choose two or three ambient tracks – songs with open, longer, lower tones and frequencies, slower rhythms with less drumming.

Alternating according to this scheme will help the brain to think more actively. Special applications that help users keep track of the set music volume will also help not harm their hearing.

About the Developer

Galina Carlson – Regional Director of Jabra in Russia, Ukraine, CIS and Georgia.

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