Opinion: Can’t hear the noise


I was enjoying a quiet afternoon reading the other day. At least I thought I was. A friend dropped by and after a few minutes asked, “How can you read with all that racket?”

My answer was, “What racket?” He pointed out that neighbors on three sides were running lawn mowers at full tilt, and another was working on a fallen tree with a chainsaw. He’d been at this task evenings and weekends for more than a week.

The fact was, I didn’t hear them. More accurately, I had gotten used to the sounds, and some mechanism in my brain that only a highly trained scientist could explain automatically shut them out.

When we first moved the boat up from Key West to Titusville, I was kept awake half the night by freight trains rolling down the shoreline at odd hours. After a couple weeks I realized I hadn’t heard a train in days.

According to one expert, Dr. Matthew Xu Friedman, who studies and teaches such things at the University at Buffalo, N.Y., the brain automatically adapts to noise and the auditory nerve cells adjust to sound activity. This keeps us from going deaf amidst loud noise, he says.

Still, many artillery crews and naval gunners have lost at least some hearing because of repeated exposure to heavy guns. Much of this loss apparently is caused by scarring from over-stimulation of the eardrum. Sort of like firemen wreck their knees after years climbing ladders.

Airline ground crews wear ear protection while guiding planes in and out of the gates. Even so, I’m told many of them experience loss of high frequency hearing and often suffer ringing in the ears. And even they claim to not hear the noise after years on the job.

My first experience with not hearing what was going on around me came when I was in the Army stationed in Germany. I had rented a small apartment in a little town a few kilometers from the base.

The town was picturesque in a fairy tale sort of way, with 200-year-old houses, narrow cobblestone streets, a bakery on one corner, a green grocer on the other and a meat market across the road.

In the middle of the block, just across from my apartment, was the ancient Catholic Church. In its tower were enormous bells that rang every quarter hour. They were so loud I literally had to stop talking while they tolled.

A visiting friend was astonished my wife and I could live with such noise. I remember looking at him and saying, “What noise?”