White Noise and the National Political Conversation

I learned how to make the wind sing to me when I was fifteen, driving through New England one summer with my parents. I usually rode in the back seat with the window a bit open, so that I was immersed in the hissing noise that the inward rush of air makes. One day, when I was thinking of a song, perhaps humming it under my breath, I realized that the noise of the wind was actually playing the song too, softly but distinctly, like the sound of a low chorus. I soon learned that all I had to do was intently think of a melody and I would hear it in the wind noise. I can still do it, especially when traveling by plane, using the roar of the engines to play any simple melody I want to hear.

A few years ago, I searched the audiological literature and found that this curious ability was not just my imagination. It was a variation of the so—called "cocktail party effect" . Most of us, when trying to understand what a pretty girl is saying to us at a noisy party, are able to focus on her voice and screen out the background babble of all the other voices. No one knows exactly how we do it but it seems to involve the complex way the brain processes the raw signals from the otic nerve, either by amplifying the voice pattern we want to hear or by filtering out the background noise, the  way that anti—spam software filters out unwanted e—mails.

We learn it early. A nine months old baby can listen to a babble of a dozen voices and detect whether one of them is its mother. We also lose it early; the failure of speech discrimination in a noisy background is one of the first handicaps you experience when your hearing begins to deteriorate.

In the case of my "wind music", the signal was the roar of the wind or airplane engine. This is white noise—a random mixture of all frequencies in about equal strength. When I thought of a song, I unconsciously used the cocktail—party effect to screen out the frequencies that weren't part of the melody line, so that the music emerged from the background—rather like the way Michaelangelo claimed he had created the statue of David, by removing all of the marble block that wasn't David.

But what we want to hear and what we want to screen out is an individual matter. So two people can sit side by side in the same airplane, listening to the same engine noise, and each will hear a different melody.

Unfortunately, a psychological equivalent of this applies to people listening to the news or involved in an argument. The events of the day are as complicated and perhaps even as random as engine noise. The same may be said of the many aspects of a complex issue like Iraq or  abortion. The only just way to handle such matters is to painstakingly consider all of the facets of the issue, weigh and compare them, and thus make a decision. But most of us have become adroit white—noise cocktail—party musicians and hear only what we want to hear to substantiate our predetermined beliefs.

So, in arguing with the adherent of a cause, you are usually wasting your time. He is listening to the tunes he wants the wind to sing to him and he can't hear anything else.

Paul Shlichta is a research scientist and occasional contributor to American Thinker.

I learned how to make the wind sing to me when I was fifteen, driving through New England one summer with my parents. I usually rode in the back seat with the window a bit open, so that I was immersed in the hissing noise that the inward rush of air makes. One day, when I was thinking of a song, perhaps humming it under my breath, I realized that the noise of the wind was actually playing the song too, softly but distinctly, like the sound of a low chorus. I soon learned that all I had to do was intently think of a melody and I would hear it in the wind noise. I can still do it, especially when traveling by plane, using the roar of the engines to play any simple melody I want to hear.

A few years ago, I searched the audiological literature and found that this curious ability was not just my imagination. It was a variation of the so—called "cocktail party effect" . Most of us, when trying to understand what a pretty girl is saying to us at a noisy party, are able to focus on her voice and screen out the background babble of all the other voices. No one knows exactly how we do it but it seems to involve the complex way the brain processes the raw signals from the otic nerve, either by amplifying the voice pattern we want to hear or by filtering out the background noise, the  way that anti—spam software filters out unwanted e—mails.

We learn it early. A nine months old baby can listen to a babble of a dozen voices and detect whether one of them is its mother. We also lose it early; the failure of speech discrimination in a noisy background is one of the first handicaps you experience when your hearing begins to deteriorate.

In the case of my "wind music", the signal was the roar of the wind or airplane engine. This is white noise—a random mixture of all frequencies in about equal strength. When I thought of a song, I unconsciously used the cocktail—party effect to screen out the frequencies that weren't part of the melody line, so that the music emerged from the background—rather like the way Michaelangelo claimed he had created the statue of David, by removing all of the marble block that wasn't David.

But what we want to hear and what we want to screen out is an individual matter. So two people can sit side by side in the same airplane, listening to the same engine noise, and each will hear a different melody.

Unfortunately, a psychological equivalent of this applies to people listening to the news or involved in an argument. The events of the day are as complicated and perhaps even as random as engine noise. The same may be said of the many aspects of a complex issue like Iraq or  abortion. The only just way to handle such matters is to painstakingly consider all of the facets of the issue, weigh and compare them, and thus make a decision. But most of us have become adroit white—noise cocktail—party musicians and hear only what we want to hear to substantiate our predetermined beliefs.

So, in arguing with the adherent of a cause, you are usually wasting your time. He is listening to the tunes he wants the wind to sing to him and he can't hear anything else.

Paul Shlichta is a research scientist and occasional contributor to American Thinker.