Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

The dorks who process digital audio for us spend a lot of time playing with sound waves.

Audacity (audio editor) - Wikipedia

The verticals represent volume, such that the tall parts are loud and the short parts are quiet. Often you'll get a recording with some really loud bits and some really quiet bits. What do you do?

One option is just to squash down the entire sound wave and make everything (say) 50% quieter. This has the benefit that it keeps the balance between loud and soft the same, but the problem that if the quiet sounds were already pretty quiet, it might make them unhearable.

In modern urban life, I think, we are constantly doing a similar process inside ourselves, both literally and figuratively.

On the literal front, I think that people who live in cities are training our brains to tune down the volume of the sounds we hear by like 90%, just to get by. The downside is that we lose the ability to perceive the quiet sounds completely. We miss the rustling of leaves and the sound of our heartbeats.

On the figurative front, I think we do something similar with all the other overwhelms of urban life. If your average commute includes multiple interactions with the extreme of the human condition, maybe you just start attenuating your experience of everything.

I don't think the processing of the "raw" inputs of existence is really viable for a city slicker (at least without further psychological modifications that I have not attained). Every so often I have an experience of being completely dialed-in to the sound around me as it actually exists, and suddenly I'm flooded with quiet beauty, but also with horror: the previously ignorable buzz of a heating unit drives me to distraction, until my brain re-learns to attenuate its inputs again.

(I think that kids are often drinking in the world in this full, unmodulated way – I feel so bad for them, being assaulted by these harsh inputs, unbeknownst to the adults who have learned to tune everything down).

In audio engineering there's an option called compression: instead of reducing the volume on everything you bring the loud sounds closer to the quiet ones. This reduces your ability to differentiate loud from quiet, but it does make it possible to hear both the quiet and the loud. I don't know what the internal, psychological version of this would look like, or if it's even possible. Or if there's a a way to accept the pleasant quiet sounds without receiving unpleasant ones, or a way to find the pleasantness in all sounds. To stay tuned in to a maximalist sensory reality, without being overwhelmed by it.

Subscribe to Atoms vs Bits

Receive our weekly posts by email