By Kristin Ladd
Walking into a soundless room is an unsettling experience. Think: Have you ever walked into a room where you lost your sense of space? Of time? If you are like me, you haven’t. When I stepped into the anechoic chamber in Utah State’s old engineering building’s basement, I did not know what to expect. The absence of visual stimuli – being in the dark, closing your eyes – these are ways I have played with my senses before. But no sound? At least no external sounds? As a hearing person, I did not have the slightest frame of reference for such a thing.
It can be easy to forget that our ears are constantly working, constantly tapping, drumming, sending cues to our brains that connect us to our external environments. Taking advantage of hearing is easy, until you enter a soundless place. The anechoic chamber (pronounced an-eco-ic, as in “without echo”) at USU, though somewhat “primitive” in comparison to ones created by NASA and Bell Labs, is just as gothic and mysterious as its name suggests. Why would someone create a place without sound? The very idea seems like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe story, or maybe “The Godfather.”
Anechoic chambers were initially created during the “race for space” age before and during the Cold War. Astronauts trained in them to understand what it might be like in space — to be without a sense of time or sound for months. Since the chambers’ creation, radio stations, music production companies, and architects have used them for studies, for creating eerie or new sounds in music or for testing other space simulations. The chambers simulate soundlessness to create a new way of understanding the spaces we inhabit. Although we may think of time and space as visual experiences – watches, clocks, seeing daylight or nightfall – time and space are also tempered acutely by the ears. Sound that bounces off walls gives us a sense of how big or small a space is, how many people are in the room, if we are alone or if our apartment building is growing quiet as hours move closer to dawn.
When Dr. Todd Moon ushered me into the anechoic chamber on campus, I did not know that time and space would change. He shut two doors, each about four inches thick, to close me in the chamber. I was suddenly in an other-worldly environment. The walls and ceiling were all made of fiberglass insulation. The floor, a cage-like structure, somewhat like standing on top of an old coal mine elevator, was suspended above what seems to be a deep cavern of the same fiberglass insulation. Seemingly bottomless, the cavern below the floor looked like Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole or an archaeological tunnel. As I sat down on a teetering chair Dr. Moon had placed on the floor for me, I began to listen – would I hear anything? After all, the most famous anechoic chamber, at the Orfield Labs in Minneapolis, was named by “The Guinness Book of World Records” as “The Quietest Place on Earth.” What did that mean? If I, a living being, were in it, how quiet would quietest be?
Still working away, my ears tuned in to catch any sound they could. I heard that buzzing sound of silence. I heard my digestive system, my heartbeat, the scratches of my smooth-writing, once-noiseless pen on my notebook pages. As I listened and tuned into my body, I realized that buzzing sound was actually my eardrums rapidly firing messages to my brain. I suddenly became very aware of myself, and less aware of time and space. Switching off all the lights, I felt even more aware. Rather than feeling alone or lonely, however, I felt very energized and comforted that my body was working as it should, was taking care of me – as it always does, even when I am not so acutely aware of it. After what felt like 10 minutes, I decided to emerge from the chamber’s depths.
I stepped out. Dr. Moon had left. “If you scream,” he had told me before closing the door, “it will be difficult to hear you. Then again, I have to go, so if you scream, I guess I won’t hear you at all.” I had screamed. The sound dissipated immediately. I had sung. The song did not seem to go further than an inch. An external environment is necessary for sounds — songs, words, screams, whistles, weeping — to go further than our own lips.
When I stepped out, I checked the time. It had been almost 45 minutes, not 10. As I went into the cold winter air, my body’s sounds were inaudible. All I could hear was a cacophony of the wind, feet walking past me, other conversations. My body’s sounds, once the only noise in the room, shrunk, paltry whispers in comparison to the outside world. I suddenly felt less significant, but normal again. Time returned, and so did space — at least in the way we are all familiar with. Then again, I had to question, what was time and space if they could change so quickly? If two aspects of life that seem so solid and concrete could be transformed with a few pounds of fiberglass insulation, what else could be?
Any student can visit the anechoic chamber by simply contacting the Engineering Department at firstname.lastname@example.org and telling them why you’d like to visit. Why not? You may never rocket into space or go to the bottom of the ocean, but maybe you can find other frontiers of yourself right here at USU.
Kristin Ladd is earning her MA in American Studies at Utah State University. She is also the Campus Outreach intern for the Student Sustainability Office and hopes to work in Environmental Education when she completes her degree in 2013.