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What are the effects of pleasant sound?

This theoretical paper approaches the relation between quiet or pleasant areas and sustainable health from a cognitive science point of view. The outcome of this paper is a qualitative cognitive model that explains how the sounds that comprise sonic environments promote or impede health. The core idea of this paper is that quiet and pleasant sonic environments allow the listener full freedom and control over mind-states. In contrast, annoying sounds “force” one to be vigilant or to attend particular sources. This paper therefore interprets pleasantness, and the absence thereof, as an indication of whether we exhibit proactive or reactive behavior. Prolonged presence in annoying sonic environments limits proactive adaptive behavior, which erodes proactive optimization of long-term needs with ensuing health effects.

We propose that the sonic features that facilitate freedom of mind-states comprise audible indications of safety: if basic and evolutionary old perceptual processes find ample safety indicators, they allow the newer and higher centers of the brain (typically the cortex) full freedom to address needs that transcend the here and now proactively. In the absence of safety indicators, attentional resources are continuously on alert to address immediate needs reactively, which corresponds to aroused mind-states and an associated focus on the here and now.

The word “quiet” has different dictionary meanings (here from the New Oxford Dictionary). When used in direct reference to a sound or sound source, “quiet” refers to making little or no noise. When used in reference to a place, period of time, or situation it means without much activity, disturbance, or excitement. The third meaning of “quiet” refers to mind states that are not disturbed or interrupted: “He wanted a quiet drink to contemplate his life”. “Tranquil” is a synonym for “quiet” in the second and third meaning.

It is useful to describe these different meanings of quietness in some detail. The first meaning is one in which quietness can be measured as sound levels. This is well within our current technical ability (e.g., [1]) and forms the basis of current policies. This interpretation is not addressed in this paper.

The second meaning of “quiet” refers not to sounds per se, but to the interpretation of places, periods, and situations as one of perceived inactivity or the absence of disturbances and excitement. This is indicative of the continuation of normalcy, the absence of pressing situational demands, and therefore of safety. This second meaning can be emulated by future measurement systems that produce similar appraisals of the state of the world as human interpreters do.