Sound minds are hard to find amid the deathly din

Despite their own noise-making capacity, it seems babies’ mental development can be stunted by excessive racket. That would explain a lot, whispers Iain Murray

It is not often that a range of seemingly inexplicable phenomena can be attributed to a single common cause, thus unravelling a myriad mysteries at a stroke; so we should treat with suspicion the findings I am about to report from researchers at the University of California, San Francisco. Even so, it is tempting to take them at their word.

For if true, their findings might explain, among other things, why some people wear sunglasses on the top of their heads and others wear shirts outside their trousers; why tabloid newspapers are popular; why adult Britons increasingly use baby talk – “uni” for university, “barby” for barbecue, “Corrie” for Coronation Street; why TV reality shows attract audiences in their millions; and why so much advertising is puerile.

It used to be said jokingly of someone who was a bit simple (in the days when you could say such a thing without being reminded that the appropriate term is “a person with learning difficulties”) that he had been dropped on his head as an infant. Not especially funny, admittedly, but it made light of an uncomfortable facet of life.

It would now seem that the joke was nearer the truth than anyone suspected, and that far more people are affected than hitherto supposed. For the Californian researchers have discovered that physical blows to the infant brain – caused by noise – may delay a baby’s first word and be responsible for the increase in language-learning disorders. More significantly still, background noise may limit mental development by swamping an infant’s brain, hindering its ability to recognise sounds.

It is a fact that not only do we live in an increasingly noisy world but also that a great many people cannot live without noise. Silence, it seems, makes them feel uneasy and incomplete. This is particularly true of builders, electricians, carpet-fitters and the like, all of whom arrive at the homes of customers equipped with that tool common to all tradesmen and without which they could not function: the portable radio. Ideally, it should be turned up high enough to be heard six doors away.

Noise follows us wherever we go. Few shops or pubs trade without the accompaniment of loud music, described as “background”. Add the sound of traffic, aircraft and machinery, and ours is an extraordinarily cacophonous world. Small wonder that, battered by the ambient racket of TVs, radios, and domestic appliances, the cerebral tissue of babies seldom recovers. Had the infant Einstein been exposed to a morning of carpet fitting, it is doubtful that relativity would have been discovered.

Note that the researchers say that one of the effects of noise is that the brain becomes unable to recognise sounds. That would help explain much, including the popularity of Kylie Minogue’s singing. It might also explain the almost complete disappearance of dental phonemes from much of spoken English. The “t”, for instance, in words such as motor, bitter, patio, Deuteronomy, and indeed Pentateuch is nowadays seldom heard. The phenomenon might also account for the increasing prevalence of unusual elisions such as “narmean?” (“Do you comprehend my meaning?”); “inya?” as in: “Busy today, inya?”; and “intit?” (“Is it not?”). A lack of sureness both about the meaning of words and their correct form of expression might be behind the intrusive “like” employed as a kind of verbal comma, as in: “I was like, ‘You never did, didya?’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, I did an’ all.'”.

It is tempting to think, too, that the brains of almost all TV and radio newsreaders and weatherpersons were swamped at birth: it might explain why they believe the UK rhymes with “blue sky”.

It’s pushing the point, I know, but could infantile brain-swamping also lie behind mass credulity? It is, for instance, a widely held myth that Paul McCartney can sing. However, since it was also believed – at a time when noise was less prevalent – that Laurence Olivier was a great actor when in truth he was an outrageous ham, gullibility may have causes other than the sound of vacuum cleaners and Jumbo jets.

And yet something must explain the prevalence of nonsense purveyed as established fact. For instance, writing in The Daily Telegraph, and without any apparent trace of irony, Elizabeth Grice describes Nigella Lawson as “the most beautiful woman in Britain”. Beautiful, undoubtedly, but standing, uncontestably supreme, among some 20 million others? Pure poppycock. Meanwhile, in the Daily Mail, Glenys Roberts invites us to believe that not only was Marlon Brando the “world’s sexiest man” but also that he “would spot someone of either gender on a film set, beckon them to follow him into his dressing room and seduce them without exchanging a single word”.

The notion that some unsuspecting redneck scene-shifter would be hard at work one minute and silently buggered by Brando the next ranks in terms of credibility alongside the question of exactly how much cheddar the moon comprises and the cruising height of pigs. But Daily Mail readers are expected to believe it. Surely all of them cannot have been dropped on their heads at birth or immersed in Led Zeppelin while in the cot.

More work needs to be done on this subject, and quickly. With noise levels rising daily, we may soon be too stupid to get at the truth.

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