In her book The Soundscape of Modernity, Emily Thompson looked to early Buddhist texts that describe how noisy life could be in a big city in South Asia circa 500 BCE. She describes “elephants, horses, chariots, drums, tabors, lutes, song, cymbals, gongs, and people crying ‘Eat ye, and drink!’” In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the deities grew so tired of the noise of humanity that they sent a great flood to wipe us all out. Just over a century ago, J. H. Girdner cataloged “The Plague of City Noises,” including horse-drawn vehicles, peddlers, musicians, animals, and bells.
If there’s such a thing as a perennial grumble, noisiness might be it.
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In our interviews with academic psychologists, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists, we often heard them talk about anxiety as a proxy indicator of internal noise levels. While there are diverse definitions of anxiety, most include elements of not only fear and uncertainty but also internal chatter.
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Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and a leading expert on the science of internal dialogue, defines “chatter” as “the cyclical negative thoughts and emotions that turn our singular capacity for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing.” Negative self-talk, like rumination about the past and worry for the future, can be merciless, even debilitating. Yet it’s only one aspect of the internal soundscape. Whether its message is negative, positive, or neutral, modern internal dialogue is high velocity and high volume. As Kross puts it, “The voice in your head is a very fast talker.” Based on findings that “inner speech” is condensed to a rate of about four thousand words per minute — 10 times the speed of expressed speech — Kross estimates that most of us in modern times have to listen to something like 320 State of the Union addresses’ worth of inner monologue on any given day.