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Could I Survive the ‘Quietest Place on Earth’?


The day of my record attempt, Orfield crossed the room’s threshold, and his voice immediately sounded far-off, because the wedges absorbed his sound waves. After I followed him inside, the sound became intimate. I had been warned that anyone chatting with me inside an anechoic chamber would sound as in the event that they were standing just next to me, murmuring into my ear. It’s an aural illusion: In a standard room, the one way for us to listen to speech directly from someone’s mouth, with no reverberation, is for her or him to speak right into our ear.

The chamber was outfitted with an office chair for my three-hour stay. Orfield Laboratories’ gray-ponytailed manager, Michael Role, outlined the complicated terms I would want to stick to as a way to set a recent record: I would want to remain within the room for 3 hours. It was my alternative to have the lights on or off. Faced with the prospect of gazing a 12-by-10-foot room for 3 hours with no adornments except a chair and a whole lot of hanging fiberglass pyramids, I opted for total darkness. “Sometimes people wish to lay down or sit on the ground, so I leave a pleasant padded blanket in here,” Role said, handing me a blue blanket — which I spread across the ground — before shutting the door (unlocked, he assured me), leaving me in lightless silence.

To begin, I lay on my stomach — a position I felt was relaxed enough for my body to acclimatize to the dearth of stimulation, but uncomfortable enough to forestall my immediately falling asleep, which might have been a mortifying turn of events to clarify to my employer, who expected me to supply an in depth written description of my experience. I resolved to lie on my back and pray the fear of being fired could be enough to maintain me awake at the hours of darkness for 3 hours, despite the clinical diagnosis of narcolepsy that makes it virtually unattainable for me to stay up in even moderately cozy semidark conditions. (I had not known that there could be a blanket within the chamber — my kryptonite.)

Once supine, I experienced the unique and briefly frightening sensation that my ears were traveling up very fast in an elevator while the remainder of my body fell gently toward Earth. I had the distinct feeling of my ear canals filling with an in-rushing silence that was by some means thicker than the quiet I had first noticed within the chamber. Inside seconds, this ceased, and every little thing sounded — or quite, continued to don’t have any sound — the exact same as before. I groped around for the notepad and pen I brought and recorded the observations that began to roll in: “gray ponytail,” “thick silence.”

But was I recording them? It was unattainable to inform within the unrelenting dark. What if the free hotel pen didn’t work? What if I took reams of interesting notes over the course of three hours, only to find, when the lights flickered on, that the pen had been dry and recorded nothing? Why do I, an expert journalist, consistently find myself counting on free hotel pens during crucial moments of my assignments? Could I press hard enough with an inkless pen to give you the option to disclose the indentations of my handwriting after the actual fact by rubbing over them with crayon? Wasn’t it just my luck that the one pen I had brought was very likely incapable of writing, and that I had idiotically placed myself under conditions where I could be unable to definitively confirm this for 3 hours?

In additional abstract ways, I had prepared quite thoroughly for this task, having contacted Dr. Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, the director of the Neuroscience Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, and asked her if becoming aware of my very own body sounds would make me go insane. “No,” she said. “Unless you’ve got a predilection for being insane to start with — which, you understand, could possibly be.” That opened up a recent avenue of inquiry. I called Dr. Oliver Mason, a researcher of psychotic disorders on the University of Surrey, who has led studies monitoring subjects’ experiences in anechoic chambers. “When you take away all sensory input,” Mason said, “our brains, that are all the time trying to differentiate signal from noise anyway, simply see signal where there objectively isn’t one.” Even in the event that they don’t have any mental illness, some individuals are more liable to conjuring phantom signals than others and can accomplish that rather more quickly, in line with Mason. Most individuals tolerate short periods of time in lightless anechoic chambers — about 20 minutes, for his experiments — “tremendous.” Individuals liable to “unusual perceptual experiences” — who think things are happening to them once they’re not — often report experiencing hallucinations inside that small window.

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