I was fortunate to be offered the opportunity to visit the anechoic chamber at the Australian Hearing Hub at Macquarie University. What is an anechoic chamber? It’s a room (chamber) with no echo (an-echo).
In other words, as much as possible, all sound at all frequencies is absorbed, which makes it very quiet .. it has no ambience. Well, that’s the theory and it’s great for research purposes. And for my purposes in investigating “silence” it was the most silent room I was going to find.
I was warned by colleagues and well-meaning friends that I’d go mad, that I wouldn’t last a few minutes, that I shouldn’t get locked in. And I’d read the story about George Foy, the longest ever survivor of the Orfield Laboratories Anechoic Chamber!!
Ironically, far from being peaceful, most people find its perfect quiet upsetting. Being deprived of the usual reassuring ambient sounds can induce fear – it explains why sensory deprivation is a form of torture. Astronauts do part of their training in anechoic chambers at NASA, so they can learn to cope with the silence of space.
I had heard being in an anechoic chamber for longer than 15 minutes can cause extreme symptoms, from claustrophobia and nausea to panic attacks and aural hallucinations – you literally start hearing things. A violinist tried it and hammered on the door after a few seconds, demanding to be let out because he was so disturbed by the silence.
And John Cage’s description.
Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special material, a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.
Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings, 50th Anniversary Edition (p. 8). Wesleyan University Press. Kindle Edition.
Well, what was it like?
It was quiet. Very quiet. The Macquarie chamber is huge, maybe a 20m cube, suspended independently from the building. You cross a moat of sorts, and all sounds/vibrations are isolated [there’s a train line underneath but you’d never konw]. It has a floor like a trampoline, and you are suspended in the middle. Huge cheese block acoustic wedges occupy every part of the wall.
I sat quietly, the door gently clicked shut. I brought a mask to black the light out completely, so as to have the “full experience”. And I enjoyed my time. How long? Around 20 minutes, then later that day I came back again, as I’d forgotten to activate the recording. And did it all again, thanks to the fantastic staff.
What happened? It was quiet. I already said that, didn’t I? And then … nothing happened. Except … I became aware, after a short time, of a very quiet high pitched ‘sound’ from within … tinnitus. Didn’t know I had some. Then a strange rhythmic experience, not so much a sound but a sense of a rhythm, and a cross rhythm, a long way ‘away’ within me. The blood flow of course. Once I had settled with these new sounds of silence, I sate quietly until I heard the click of the huge door opening.
I became the source of sound. I could hear myself. Not an internal dialogue, but an internal soundscape, an internal experience representing itself to my brain as sound, my sound.
There was quiet here
But the quiet to be honest was no more quiet than a meditative state or self-hypnosis. In fact, my perception of quiet is perhaps now under challenge, as the anechoic chamber was not as quiet as I thought it would be.
But definitely peaceful. Truly peaceful and I could have stayed there quietly contemplating for hours …