The Center for Mind-Body Medicine

Listen Up: Sounds Impact Mood

As a frequent meditator, armed with new skills of awareness, I was recently struck by how noisy my Washington, DC surroundings actually are. Noticing my own internal reactions, I started to wonder if pervasive noise in the environment could cause me harm. Research is now saying that I am right to question.


For children who live in chronically noisy areas, there is a clear health concern. A recent large-scale study of children in schools near major airports found that increased aircraft noise was directly related to decreased reading scores and decreased recognition in memory tasks.[i] Further studies performed near airports found that children had reduced attention, cognition, and performance in school as a result of chronic noise exposure.[ii] Studies of noise on adults found higher rates of cardiovascular illness, and hypertension[iii].

Beyond chronic health problems, a recent study on rats found that loud airport noise was associated with structural changes in the temporal lobe of the brain—the region associated with spatial recognition, memory, and hearing—as well as with increased levels of the stress hormone norepinephrine.[iv] This demonstrated that noise could have the effect of actually changing our brains.

There is a key feature that links all of these studies–annoyance. Children and adults measured more annoyance in their daily life the louder that background noises occurred. The rats demonstrated their “annoyance” by displaying reduced mobility—a sign of stress.

It is easy to trivialize the effects of annoyance; of course loud noises annoy people. However, annoyance might be one of the most insidious thoughts and emotions that we can experience.

It is a very clear indicator of stress and aversion and, over-time, can lead to the same chronic health problems associated with stress. In some of the above studies, the level of annoyance actually predicted the severity of noise exposure symptoms.

So if you can, find some time to spend in a quiet place—be it in your home, in your environment, or within yourself.

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[i] Crombie, R.,Clark, C., Stansfeld, S.A. (2011).  Environmental noise exposure, early biological risk and mental health in nine to ten year old children: a cross-sectional field study. Environmental Health, 10, 39.

[ii] Clark, C, & Stansfeld, SA. (2007). The effect of transportation noise on health and cognitive development: A review of recent evidence. Int J Comp Psychology, 20, 145–15;  Clark, C, Martin, R, van Kempen, E, Alfred, T, Head, J, Davies, H., et al. (2006). Exposure-effect relations between aircraft and road traffic noise exposure at school and reading comprehension: the RANCH project. Am J Epidemiol, 16327–37; Stansfeld, SA, Berglund, B, Clark, C, Lopez-Barrio, I, Fischer, P, Öhrström, et al. (2005). Aircraft and road traffic noise and children’s cognition and health: a cross-national study. Lancet, 365, 1942–1949. 

[iii] Wen Qi Gan, Davies, HW., Koehoorn, M., Brauer M. (2011). Association of Long-term Exposure to Community Noise and Traffic-related Air Pollution With Coronary Heart Disease Mortality. American Journal of Epidemiology. 175 (9):898-906

[iv] Guo-qing, D., Bing Zhou, Zheng-guang L., Qi-li L. (2011). Aircraft noise exposure affects rat behavior, plasma norepinephrine levels, and cell morphology of the temporal lobe. Journal of Zhejiang University Science B. 12(12): 969–975


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  • Jo Cooper

    Tim, I’m a big fan of Gordon Hempton, founder of One Square Inch, a sanctuary for silence at Olympic National Park. Hempton is a sound recording artist, and his research shows that this is the quietest place in the US. He’s trying to preserve it. His book about this is fascinating. There’s also a documentary about him. And I just discovered this lovely audio recording with slide show on the One Square Inch website, called “Breathing Space” – http://onesquareinch.org/breathing-space/ . Enjoy listening to natural sounds of the rain forest….

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