Noise Is a Drug and New York Is Full of Addicts

As soon as the door slams, I slide to the floor in a cross-legged position and hold my breath. The room in which I have just barricaded myself looks a bit like Matilda’s chokey; a single light bulb casts a sickly yellow glow about the room, its walls lined with triangle-shaped chunks of fiberglass straining against wire mesh. In 15 minutes I will leave this room for the cacophonous world of Manhattan. I should, theoretically, be appreciating this small respite for what it is. Even so, with every second, I feel as if I’m going deeper underwater.

I am sitting in an anechoic chamber, the only one in New York City. Nestled in the hip, angled building of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, the anechoic chamber is where acoustics students, headed by the aptly-named Melody Baglione, conduct research—it’s the equivalent of a zero-gravity chamber, only in this case, the variable is sound. The room is designed to be as noise-free as possible; its chunky walls completely absorb reflections of sound waves, and insulate the space within from all exterior sources of noise. While the chamber is not exactly silent, per se—at 20 decibels, the ambient noise level is quieter than a whisper, but twice as loud as a pin drop— it’s almost certainly the quietest space in New York.

And the silence, as they say, is deafening. Sitting in here, it’s as if someone has turned the volume up inside of my head. I helplessly observe my mind as thoughts careen across it, stop in the middle and, after a brief, flailing, Wile E. Coyote-esque interval, plummet into the abyss. Desperate for distraction, I check my phone, crack my knuckles, make tiny coughing sounds. Each tiny rupture of quiet attains such specialness, such texture, you can practically touch it. It takes tremendous effort to be silent: yet that’s what I’m here to be. In a futile, self-defeating moment, I try to force myself to un-tense. “Just relax!” I scold myself. I am in what you might call a state of withdrawal: and, like it must be when withdrawing from anything at first, sobriety is deeply uncomfortable.

QUIET ZONE: Michael J. Pimpinella, who received his master’s degree in engineering at Cooper Union, conducts research in the school’s anechoic chamber. At 20 decibels, the chamber is likely the quietest place in New York City.Courtesy of the Cooper Union / Photo by Mario Morgado

What am I detoxing from? Noise. I live in the East Village, which is very noisy—illegally noisy. Last year, Jackie Le

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus9 min readPsychology
Homo Narrativus And The Trouble With Fame: We think that fame is deserved. We are wrong.
Our understanding of fame is critical to how we see each other and our society. But it is also badly wrong. Let me tell you why. We humans are storytelling and story-finding machines: homo narrativus, if you will. In making sense of the world, we loo
Nautilus14 min readPsychology
Language Both Enraptures and Deceives Us: An interview with linguist and writer Julie Sedivy.
The purpose of language is to reveal the contents of our minds, says Julie Sedivy. It’s a simple and profound insight. We are social animals and language is what springs us from our isolated selves and connects us with others. Sedivy has taught lingu
Nautilus20 min readPsychology
The Tricky Problem with Other Minds: How our mental states overlap with and diverge from those of other species.
Human “exceptionalism” is for many people an unquestioned assumption. For the religious, it is a God-given fact; for humanists, it is a celebration of our unique mental capacities. No other species has created music, art, literature, or built skyscra