Thomas Wictor

The science is settled

The science is settled

As far back as I can remember, I was puzzled by how noisy people were. Being someone who cherishes peace and quiet, I felt completely separated from so many members of my species. And now the science is settled: All that noise is designed to distract the noisemaker from what’s going on in his or her own head.

People, and especially men, hate being alone with their thoughts so much that they’d rather be in pain. In a study published in Science Thursday on the ability of people to let their minds “wander” — that is, for them to sit and do nothing but think — researchers found that about a quarter of women and two-thirds of men chose electric shocks over their own company…

But even going into the exercise with a plan — an upcoming vacation to plot, for example, or a particularly dreamy celebrity to daydream about — didn’t seem to help participants enjoy their time alone. Those who completed the study at home often admitted to cheating by picking up their phones or a book, and many reported that the six to 15 minutes spent thinking had been unpleasant.

When it became clear that people were desperate for distractions, the researchers decided to give them one. “It dawned on us: If people find this so difficult,” Wilson said, “would they prefer negative stimulations to boredom?” He gave them access to a device that would provide a small electrical shock by pressing a button. It wasn’t a very strong shock, as the device was built around a 9 volt battery. “But we weren’t even sure it was worth doing,” he said. “I mean, no one was going to shock themselves by choice.”

But they did. The researchers removed the curiosity factor by giving subjects a sample shock beforehand. They even asked them how much they would pay, given a $5 allowance, to prevent another shock. Most offered up a hypothetical dollar or two. But when left alone in the room for a 15-minute thinking session, the participants exhibited some shocking behavior. One man (whose data was left out of the study) shocked himself 190 times. “I have no idea what was going on there,” Wilson said. “But for most people, it was more like seven times.”

My brother Tim and I had concluded years ago that people made noise to drown out their own thoughts. Initially we couldn’t comprehend deafening music, incessantly barking dogs, TVs turned up full blast, and car sound systems as loud as a stadium PA. From that inability to grasp the motivation, we evolved to a position that the noise was a form of aggression that alleviated the feeling of impotence. Then we thought that it also filled a screaming void. The empty and lonely were the ones who did this.

Now, however, we have a much darker interpretation.

We believe that the noise is intended to distract from the knowledge of terrible behavior. It can be anything from dishonesty to murder. If you’re unable to face your own thoughts for even five minutes, you’re running from self-awareness.

Last night my entire street shot off gigantic, totally illegal, fire-hazard mortars.

They exploded directly over our houses. The concussions set off car alarms, and flaming debris rained down on us until well past midnight.

Every house also had a party going, with music and shouting. It was total bedlam. Explosions, thirty different songs roaring out at the same time, dogs barking, and hundreds of people screaming. It’s completely abnormal to find anything attractive about that.

A war correspondent traveling with American troops in World War One wrote about how the doughboys entered a French town abandoned when word got out that there could be a battle. The Germans fled rather than fight, so the Americans went into the houses and found the wine cellars. After a couple of hours, the correspondent walked down the main street and heard drunk Americans—almost none of whom were musicians—pounding on every single piano in the city.

That’s what it was like last night, with the addition of explosions. It’ll be much worse tonight.

I knew a woman who took her dog for rides in her car. The dog was enormous, and it had the loudest bark I’ve ever heard. It would put its head out the driver’s window—next to the woman’s ear—and bark constantly. We could hear the barking in the distance, long after the car disappeared.

Tim and I couldn’t understand how she could bear it. I now realize that she needed it in order to disrupt her thoughts.

There once was a man who made noise without letup. He grunted, moaned, coughed, sneezed, talked to himself, sang to himself, and cleared his throat as regularly as a march: Rumph! Rumph! Rumph! Rumph! He was literally never quiet. We figured out that he used sound to distract himself from his own thoughts, but only recently did we discover the nearly incomprehensible nightmare that was his entire life.

I spend most of my day in silence. When I wake up, I switch on the radio for about half an hour. In the afternoon I go next door and talk to Tim. At night I watch a movie until I’m ready to fall asleep. Before I get into bed, I turn on a white-noise machine set to “seashore.” It sounds like waves hitting a beach.

See how the button has been pushed into the body of the device? That happened during the fifteen months or so that Tim and I were under some kind of assault. It stopped for a while, but now we’re having occasional problems again. The boxes in the background of the photo contain copies of my failed memoir Ghosts and Ballyhoo. I bought them from the publisher as part of the pretend publicity campaign that Mike Albee ran for me.

I can look at my broken white-noise machine and my dusty boxes of unsold books without having to lunge for the radio to drown out my thoughts. Sure, I wish things had been different on just about every level. But I can tell you from watching the noisemakers that the louder they are, the harder they fall.

Today I went up on my roof and took a picture of beautiful clouds.

Their silent majesty calms me. I look at them instead of trying to shout down my own mind.

All will be well.

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