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Fed Up With Noise, Foy Seeks 'Zero Decibels'

George Michelson Foy stood on the platform of a New York City subway station, battered by the noise of trains, crowds and traffic. Suddenly, he couldn't take another minute of the din.

Zero Decibels is the story of Foy's search for absolute silence. In his quest, he visited the Parisian catacombs, Joseph Pulitzer's "silent vault" and the Berkshires. He tried noise-canceling headphones, flotation tanks and silent meditation.

Foy used a "serviceable" sound meter that cost a couple hundred dollars to measure the levels of sound in his life. The place he found the greatest silence was in an anechoic chamber, a sound-proof room at Orfield Labs in Minnesota.

"It's rated to minus 9.4 decibels," Foy tells NPR's Neal Conan. But how is that possible -- negative decibels? "Zero decibels is not perfect silence," Foy says. "It's actually the level at which 100 people who don't have hearing damage stop hearing anything. But in fact, that doesn't mean that there are no sound waves around."

Foy describes the anechoic chamber in a word: "Wonderful." The chamber consists of "three cubes nestled inside each other. Two are steel. The third is 1-foot-thick concrete walls, and the steel cubes are resting on springs."

He says the first thing he heard in the chamber was a sort of bubble: "That's the only way I can describe it. It was like an aural bubble. There was nothing there."

Next he heard his own breathing, and then, when he held his breath, his pulse.

Listening hard, Foy says the next thing he heard worried him: "a rhythmic kind of scraping sound that reminded me of a particular piece of nautical machinery." Foy later learned that sound was tinnitus, or a ringing in your ears that is symptomatic of your hearing actually working.

"If you think of your hearing system as an amplifier with a mic and related circuitry -- when you turn on your amplifier at home on your sound system, you start to hear a tiny little hum. And that, in fact, is what tinnitus is," Foy explains.

He thinks it's very likely that most people have tinnitus, at least those with working auditory systems, and that sound is the hum they emit.

Ultimately, Foy says he sees his search for silence as commensurate with searching for new kinds of sound, and new ways of listening.

"Listening is absolutely key to this whole concept," he says. "I think listening is part and parcel of the value of silence because it's something that we've forgotten how to do, and in so doing, we've forgotten some of the richness of the world that we live in."

Tell us: Where do you go, or what do you do, when the noise of everyday life becomes unbearable?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.