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Word Games: Noise

Some brains need peace and quiet

Not long ago, two friends married and, in the groom’s speech to his bride, he said that all the worry and frenzy of work and life was now immaterial – a distraction from their existence together, mere noise.

You know what he means: the general whir that grinds away in the background, the soundtrack to long, busy days. It feels as if the world has got noisier, not in volume but in volume of activity, in relentless movement and chatter. Sometimes, you’ll have the radio on while scrolling Twitter and sending an email and half-talking to someone while making dinner and you’ll wonder: how did this happen? And: can my brain survive? Because it feels like it hurts at the edges in that shimmery state of hyperactivity, vibrating with overstimulation. That’s when you have to go and lie face down in a cool room with the blinds down, remembering how to breathe. (Maybe not everyone has to do that.)

Some are better at withstanding noise than others; they thrive on it. The rest of us waver through the days, trying and failing to escape using an armoury of equipment: headphones, eye masks, corners of sofas, off switches, sleep. This sounds like the groanings of a pensioner (problematic as I’m 30) but we’re not all suited to the constant churn of information, of opinion, of noise. It feels biological or at least neurological – some brains need peace and quiet.

Quiet: from the Latin, quies, meaning “rest, quiet” and linked to the Old English hwil, meaning “space of time”. That’s about right: quiet isn’t only about sound but about pace, gentleness, slowness – spaces and places where things come to rest. Some people never seem to sit down; they’re constantly doing and talking, as if to stop is to fail. Noise, meanwhile, is from the Old French, noise, meaning “uproar, brawl”, apparently derived from the Latin, nausea, meaning “disgust, annoyance, discomfort” or, literally, seasickness. Which is pretty much how it feels when you’re in a room of people yapping frantically at each other about all the things they’re doing with their lives.

The groom had it right: it’s just noise, the sickening heave of a ship in a storm, all to be forgotten when you reach dry land.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare