How Quiet Is Too Quiet? The Unbearable Silence Of Anechoic Chambers

There are times when most of us want a little respite from the sounds of the world, even if only when we need to rest or concentrate. Marcel Proust famously wrote his 7-volume In Search of Lost Time in a cork-lined bedroom, although it must be said that the allergic Proust was hoping to keep out dust & pollen as much as unwanted distracting noise.

As it turns out, quiet isn’t what you might imagine. The quietest places on earth are anechoic (without echo) chambers. The official rating of the Microsoft chamber, currently regarded as the quietest, is -20db (0db is the threshold for human hearing). The thing is, the quieter it gets, the more you perceive the disconcerting sounds of your body.

The above video is a great introduction to the construction and properties of an anechoic chamber, so there is no need to recap the technical details. Prior to the Microsoft facility opening in 2015, the Orfield Chamber, Minneapolis, was regarded as the quietest. A 2012 article on the Orfield Chamber by the Daily Mail gave rise to a legend that persists and has been echoed by sources as reputable as Smithsonian Magazine and Classic FM.

“The longest that anyone has survived in the anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in South Minneapolis is just 45 minutes”, the DM reported. Basically, the perceived amplification of body sounds and the disorientating lack of echo become unbearable and can induce hallucinations. Before probing this claim, here is modern music’s most famous use of “quiet” – in a composition that explores ambient sound as part of “music”. Just imagine hearing John Cage’s iconic piece in an anechoic chamber!

In 2019, the Daily Mail repeated the 45-minute-limit claim, this time about the Microsoft Anechoic Chamber. Here is Classic FM (8 April 2021) on the subject: ‘”Earth’s quietest place will drive you crazy in 45 minutes,’ a Smithsonian article claims. There are various rumours about the longest time anyone has spent in the world’s quietest room. And while there’s no official competition running, Gopal at Microsoft tells CNN: “The longest continuous time anyone has spent inside the chamber is about 55 minutes.”

In an article published in New York Times on 23 November 2022, Caity Weaver investigates the “wild and terrible” claims about how unbearable anechoic chambers soon become. She reports: “Earlier this year, members of the public began, apparently spontaneously, and via TikTok and YouTube, convincing one another that the [Orfield anechoic] room was created as an invitation to compete; that spending a few hours alone inside it entitled a person to a cash prize; that the value of this cash prize was up to $7 million; and that anyone could attempt to win it”.

Weaver notes that an early anechoic chamber was developed in 1943, so the US Army could secretly test sound systems powerful enough to create the illusion that 1000s of fully armoured and supported battle-ready troops were present. She also reports that Orfield Laboratories is challenging the Guinness Book of Records over the ranking of Microsoft’s Redmond chamber being quieter than its chamber. Weaver writes: “in 2008, Guinness World Records was sold to the Jim Pattison Group, a Canadian conglomerate that also owns the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! franchise”. Orfield believes that the testing of Microsoft’s facility was not as stringent as that of his chamber, that the Guinness Book of Records may have been influenced by consulting and adjudication fees, and that his chamber has, in any case, been substantially improved since the testing of the Microsoft chamber. Orfield has lodged an appeal.

Weaver booked a three-hour solo session in the Orfield Chamber. She chose to spend her time in darkness and was given a chair to sit on and a thick blanket to lie on. She writes that she was taken by surprise when the lights came back on and the door opened. She concludes, “Despite the pleasant sensation I noted as I quit the chamber — my time there had been as sedative as a spa visit, only much more expensive and uncomfortable — I left Minneapolis in a melancholy mood. I had not won up to $7 million. I hadn’t even lost my mind”.

Just for fun, here is a Death Metal cover of John Cage’s 4’33’.

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