Second part of an occasional series on developments in brain machines – a subject in which RAW took a keen interest. (Part 1 was here)
Noise-cancelling devices could, at a stretch, be categorised as “brain machines” (when you consider that sensory deprivation tools such as “flotation tanks” seem to fall under that category). They certainly seem to improve the effect of other audio input on mental states.
RAW comments in various places on the impact of sound: from his Sufi exercise on listening without conceptually objectifying the sources of noises, to his advice to mute TV ads, his reminiscences of the salvific effects of Beethoven’s Ninth, his recommendations of some of the Acoustic Brain Research recordings, etc…
And of course his comment on the best course of action when faced with emotional people in certain circumstances: leave the room. If you can’t change your physical location, the next best option might be to switch off the noise. Peace seems synonymous with quiet.
I was tempted for a long time by noise-cancelling headphones, but put off by the high price – and my own scepticism over whether they worked. (I’ve used soft foam earplugs for as long as I can remember and find them absolutely indispensable in many situations1. The brand I use is Mack’s Original – cheap and highly effective, reusable and comfortable enough for sleeping).
I finally bought a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Still pricey, unfortunately (but cheaper than iPhones). The noise where I live had increased – almost as if people in my neighbourhood are competing to be loudest. And a lot of noise from building work, which foam earplugs are less successful in shutting out.
I got the Sony over-ear type2 (said to be the “industry leaders” in nearly all the reviews I read, overtaking Bose). They’ve exceeded my expectations – the noise cancelling seems superb to me. They don’t cancel absolutely every noise, but they seem to cut out all the noise I would want them to cut out. A very natural, pleasing effect – unlike earplugs (which give the sense of muffling). Kind of like sitting on top of a mountain. They connect via Bluetooth with my laptop (and potentially any number of wireless/Bluetooth devices) – this seems effortless and seamless. And they can also connect via cable to stereo systems, the usual (or “old”) way. Or you can just use them without any audio input, to cancel noise – as I did recently on what may have been the most peaceful train journey I ever took. Battery life: 30 hours per charge.
The combination of cancelling “real” environmental noise, while delivering any chosen “virtual” sound – in high quality and any volume, from whisper-level upwards, and without the possibility of interruption from car alarms, dogs barking, next door putting up new shelves, etc – gives rise to some interesting possibilities (have you seen some of the long audio ‘soundtracks’ in the weird corners of Youtube recently?). I definitely consider them brain machines.
1. If you, or a loved one, ever finds yourself staying in hospital, consider earplugs essential, if you want to get any sleep. It’s a good idea to find a brand that works for you.
Incidentally, please don’t confuse “earplugs” with “earbuds” (or earphones). I’m referring above to what are essentially just shaped pieces of soft foam (“earplugs”), not audio playback technology! You can get earbuds (or rather earphones, in-ear “headphones”) with noise-cancelling technology, but they tend not to be as effective as the proper over-ear headphones I describe. Apparently there’s a subtle distinction between “earbuds” – small speakers which sort of hang in the crevices of your ears, and “earphones” (or in-ear “headphones”) which are pushed into the ears in the same way that earplugs are – although not quite as deeply. Clear? No, I thought not!
2. Sony WH-1000XM4. Here’s a typical review.