Friday, November 20, 2015

Explaining Sound Sensitivity and Why ANC (Active Noise Canceling) Matters

(warning: this blog entry is long.  I divided it into sections to make it easier to read.  I hope that helps.)

The Intro, or Why This Came Up At All 
I've just returned from the gym, where I've had a membership for a couple weeks now.  The place is called Planet Fitness, a line of gyms that offer $10/month memberships in exchange for a stripped down (but aggressively nonjudgmental) experience.  They have the whole line of exercise machines, for example, but no pool or tennis courts or indoor/outdoor track.  The other relevant feature about them is the decor.  Besides that the colors are purple and yellow (yes, seriously), this particular gym was built in half of an old Menards (home and garden store), and they haven't done a smidgen of soundproofing since acquiring the property, as far as I can tell.  I swear, if a single machine is clicking halfway across the massive exercise floor, I can hear it.  With at least 20 cardio machines going at any one time, and at least half as many strength training machines plus the music they pipe in...  It's really bad for concentrating on your workout.

First Attempt
For this reason, and several others, I've had noise-canceling headphones on my wishlist since my last pair broke a few years ago.  I've gotten along well enough without them, but it's been an itch in the back of my mind, and between this gym and the fact that my sound sensitivity seems to be worse some days now, I finally put my foot down and invested in a $50 pair.  Hooray for birthday money.

Sadly, despite my enthusiasm, the earbuds did not pan out.  They barely did a thing, in fact.  I might as well have been wearing normal earbuds.  Quite a difference from my last pair, where I could turn them on and the sounds of the road and the whistling of the wind went blissfully quiet with a polite "hiss" as the electronics powered up.

But Fortunately...
So I was back to square one, and disgruntled to boot.  I count as the working poor, which means I can't afford to drop several hundred bucks for the high grade headphones my doctor recommended.  (Her kids have sound sensitivity too, go figure.)  As God would have it, my anniversary with my boyfriend was coming up, and given how disappointed I was at the failure of the other earbuds, he hatched a plan.  Long story short: because my boyfriend cares about my sanity and is very sweet, I now own these:
He even got them in blue.
These are Bose (QC20), meaning they're stupidly expensive but are generally the best the consumer market can offer.  The ratings do bear that out, thankfully.  More than the ratings, though, I've tried these out for a week or so.  They bear out and exceed my memories of my old Active Noise Canceling (ANC) earphones.  They come with two modes of ANC operation: one for being able to hear people (Aware mode), and one for not (unnamed, but I snarkily call it "Unaware mode").  The latter mode is excellent for drowning out road sounds, rumbles, whirs from fans, distant slamming doors, and other annoyances.  It seems to work fairly well across all ranges of sound, from high pitched squeaks on poorly oiled hinges to the bass of the sounds of the road.

(Sidenote: I do not use Unaware mode while driving.  One of the first ways you know something is wrong with your car is by the sounds it makes.  Plus being able to hear cars coming up beside you is an excellent aid to checking your mirrors.)

Active Noise Canceling, Noise Levels, and the Gym
All that said, I've been putting those earbuds through their paces at the gym I mentioned above, with its layers upon layers of cacophony.  Impressively, Unaware mode does not, in fact, completely drown out the noise of the gym.  I went at a relatively offpeak hour, 2:30, and I could still hear people chattering behind me (though not as well as I would've otherwise).  I could still hear the annoying click click behind me and to the right, the sound of a limping machine some guy wouldn't get off.  It was all there, just much quieter. 

Having some of the best ANC available, but still being able to hear all that, got me thinking.  Prior to today, I'd always thought sound sensitivity was mainly an issue with loud noises.  The loudness of the gym, for example, necessitated headphones or earplugs.  The loudness of a movie theater always necessitates earplugs, and even then it's noisy.  I'd get headaches.  I picked up an app that tracks deciBel levels, specifically to check how sensitive I was.

My readings on that app were... underwhelming.  The world around me almost never approximates a jet engine, even though it can really feel like it.  Noise levels rarely get above 70-80 deciBels.  (80 dB, by the way, is being right next to the in-sink garbage disposals while they're running.  A comparison chart, for the curious.)  That lack of high readings bothered me.  If it wasn't the noise of a place, why did I still get headaches and want to go hide in quieter places?

Sound Sensitivity Explained
I couldn't figure it out... until I spent time in that gym today in Unaware mode.  I measured the gym's noise level out of curiosity.  Never got above 70 dB.  So it wasn't the sound level that drove me bonkers.  It was the sound complexity.  The sheer number of things going on at one time.  People walking around chattering, the clunks of weights and strength training devices, thud-thuddings from the footsteps on treadmills, high-pitched beeps as people programmed their cardio machines, music blaring from the speakers...

The world, you see, is a symphony of sound.  My brain doesn't filter all that sound as politely as most peoples' does.  At this moment in my very quiet apartment (25 dB), there are three smallish fans running, plus the hum of my computer's machinery.  Every key I hit makes a soft sound somewhere between a tap, a click, and a thud.  The mouse makes sharpish clicking sounds.  Because all of that is relatively quiet, I'm only marginally aware of it.  Most people wouldn't hear it at all, because the brain filters out extraneous and irrelevant noise.  No one really needs to hear every key they press on a keyboard.

So my brain doesn't do that very well.  Here in my very quiet apartment, it's not really overwhelming.  There isn't much loud or complexity.  Outside, though, is an entirely different experience.  From airplanes to birds to cars to dishes, all the way down the alphabet to zippers, this world has a lot of different sounds.

The vast majority of those sounds are unexpected.  If I see a car coming by, my brain will usually buffer and "quiet" the sound of it passing.  But if a car comes up behind me suddenly, there's an excellent chance I'll flinch and look around.  My brain is already bad at ignoring sounds that don't matter, but adding unpredictability into it basically ensures I won't be able to ignore it.

Stop for a minute and listen to your surroundings.  Try to note every separate sound you can hear.  Perhaps there's a coffee maker, or your refrigerator, or the clink of dishes, or your computer's fan whirs quietly.  If you're out and about, perhaps there are people talking, or machines working, or cars passing.  Try to listen to all those sounds at once.  That's what it's like for me to have sound sensitivity, but all the time. 

Instead of my brain automatically filtering out sounds that don't matter, I actively have to set them aside.  If the sound was very sudden, sharp, and/or loud, it may have made me physically jump or twitch, and then I have to calm down from the sudden spike of heartrate and adrenaline.  Even if I don't physically react, I often still suffer the heartrate spike and adrenaline. 

I do this all day. 

The Importance of Active Noise Canceling
I mentioned earlier that because my apartment is pretty quiet, I'm only marginally aware of the various noises in it.  So if I have a device that selectively quiets or eliminates sounds from my threshold of awareness, that saves me a lot of twitching, jumping, flinching, and other unpleasant reactions.  The better the strength and "intelligence" of the device, the less energy I have to spend reacting, setting aside those sounds, and refocusing on the task at hand.  It's like having a secondary filter, complementing my brain's subpar filter, leaving me more energy to deal with the rest of life.

I cannot stress enough how incredible that is.  Life is anywhere from draining to exhausting on any given day.  Having something to keep some of that lost energy, or a portable place to isolate myself from the chaos of the day, is wonderful.

I usually go through the day without using any ANC; this is my life, after all.  But knowing it's there, ready to quiet the multitudinous clamor of life if it gets overwhelming, is comforting.  I've taken to carrying them even when I don't think I'll need them.  They're nearly always at hand, and I suspect they will join the list of things I don't like to leave home without: my tablet, keys, and wallet.  (Once upon a time, "a good book" would also have been on that list, but I digitized most of my library and put it on my tablet.  I'm presently carrying around a paperback, though.)

Some Concerns
I'm a little afraid of wearing these earbuds too often and getting used to the world not being so complex, only to be caught somewhere without them and be unable to focus.  It's the same rationale I use with painkillers.  For an average day, I should be able to get through life without having to resort to external help.  If my headache isn't too bad and might be from dehydration or because I haven't exercised my neck muscles, I prefer to drink some water and exercise my neck, not pop some pills and ignore the potential causes.

There's also the potential of making my sensitivity worse, in general.  Apparently in some cases paying more attention to these sensitivities (or trying to treat them) can exacerbate them.  I definitely, definitely do not need worse brain-sound filters.  So I'm going to have to be careful with how often I reach for these earbuds.

Does anyone else think life is like a giant balancing act? 


  1. Sound sensitivity is close to my heart as I was born blind and have some ASD traits so am naturally very sensitive. At the age of 31 I started getting tinnitus. It was relatively mild but still was pretty devastating for me because it took away moments of quiet. At age 32 I had a few months where it was pretty bad and that helped make 2012 a really bad year. Thankfully the 2012 noise left and it hasn't gotten worse. However it has changed me in a way, I'm more emotionally cold and distant because of it. It ruined a moment of quiet on my trip to Germany when we were watching a sunrise on a mountain top. Tinnitus tends to ruin good moments more than anything (but once it gets worse it ruins even more).

    All this to say I don't use headphones hardly ever any more. I have noticed the tones of my tinnitus (people usually hear more than one tone) are actual white note frequencies on the piano scale, B, C, and G. So that leads me to think music had something to do with it. I never used noise cancelling headphones because I thought having to mess with a battery was more trouble than it was worth but now I see it being smart as you don't have to crank up your music as loud with the aid of it.

  2. Thankyou for sharing your experiences. I am the phater of a five year old with autism, your blogs help me understand him better.