Saturday, November 14, 2015

In Pursuit of Silence

I was waiting for Dan in the public library (which seems to be a perennial situation) and looking for a book that seemed interesting enough to fill the time. Just while I was (perhaps wrongfully) lamenting the selection available, I chanced upon a spine that caught my eye. I spent the next 15 minutes engrossed in George Prochnik's In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise.

Needless to say, the book came home with me, and I promised to never doubt the library system again.

The inside cover sets the stage perfectly: "More than money, power,  and even happiness, silence has become the most precious- and dwindling- commodity of our modern world." While that's a pretty bold, and perhaps melodramatic, statement to make, I was intrigued from the first page. I'm only about 100 pages in, but Prochnik has charmed me with his vacillation between philosophical musings on the very existence and pursuit of silence and his search for explanations in the biological sciences. Thus far I've been treated to the exploration of silence as a means of connecting with the divine reality of the universe (thanks to interviews with various monastic sects), conjectures from evolutionary psychology on the origins and reasons for hearing in the first place, and speculation on the adaptive purposes for animals' vocalizations. At page 97, I began a foiree into the strategic use of sound environments by the corporate world.

Prochnik's variety perhaps compensates for his lack of depth, but I'm intrigued, nonetheless. Cage's evolving ideas about the significance of silence, and the significance of all sounds are recurrent. though Prochnik has yet to concede to the value of "noise," and has instead focused on the negative physiological and psychological impacts of some sounds in contrast to others.

I'm excited to see where he goes.

Here's a favorite passage of mine from Chapter 1- Listening For the Unknown:

"All the time I'd been in the monastery, I'd been searching for some kinds of clear, encapsulated lesson in silence- something that I could take home with me. But what I'd received instead was a powerful reminder of the good that can come from not knowing, from lingering where the mind keeps reaching outward. I remembered speaking earlier to Vinod Menon, a neuroscientist who has done fMRI studies of people listening to music. Menon discovered that the peak of positive brain activity actually occurs in the silent pauses between sounds, when the brain is striving to anticipate what the next note will be. The burst of neural firing that takes place in the absence of sound stimulus enables the mind to perform some of its most vital work of maintaining attention and encoding memories."

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