On the day of my record attempt, Orfield stepped through the threshold of the room, and his voice immediately rang out in the distance, as the wedges absorbed his sound waves. After following him inside, the sound became intimate. I had been warned that anyone talking to me inside an anechoic chamber would appear to be standing right next to me, whispering in my ear. It’s an auditory illusion: in a normal room, the only way we can hear speech directly from someone’s mouth, without reverberation, is if they speak directly into our ear.
The room was equipped with a desk chair for my three hour stay. The gray ponytailed director of Orfield Laboratories, Michael Role, described the complicated conditions I would have to adhere to to set a new record: I would have to stay in the room for three hours. It was my choice to turn the lights on or off. Faced with the prospect of staring at a 12-by-10-foot room for three hours with no adornments except for a chair and hundreds of hanging fiberglass pyramids, I opted for total darkness. “Sometimes people like to lay down or sit on the floor, so I leave a nice padded blanket here,” Role said, handing me a blue blanket – which I spread out on the floor – before closing the door. (unlocked, he assured me), leaving me in a lightless silence.
To begin with, I lying on my stomach – a position that I felt relaxed enough for my body to acclimate to the lack of stimulation, but uncomfortable enough to keep me from falling asleep immediately, which would have been a mortifying twist to explain to my employer, who expected me to provide a detailed written description of my experience. I decided to lie on my back and pray that the terror of being fired was enough to keep me awake in the dark for three hours, despite the clinical diagnosis of narcolepsy making it virtually impossible for me to stay awake even in moderately comfortable semi-dark conditions. . (I didn’t know there would be a blanket in the bedroom – my kryptonite.)
Once in bed, I experienced the unique and briefly frightening sensation of my ears rising very rapidly in an elevator as the rest of my body gently fell towards Earth. I had the distinct sensation of my ear canals filling with a rushing silence that was somehow thicker than the stillness I had first noticed in the room. Within seconds it stopped and everything sounded – or rather, continued to have no sound – exactly as before. I groped for the notepad and pen I had brought and recorded the observations that were starting to come in: “grey ponytail”, “thick silence”.
But did I record them? It was impossible to tell in the implacable darkness. What if the hotel’s free pen doesn’t work? What if I took tons of interesting notes for three hours, only to find, when the lights came on, that the pen was dry and not recording anything? Why do I, a professional journalist, constantly find myself depending on free hotel pens during the crucial moments of my assignments? Could I press hard enough with an inkless pen that I could reveal the indentations of my writing afterwards by rubbing them with pencil? Wasn’t it a coincidence that the only pen I brought was most likely unable to write, and I foolishly put myself in conditions where I wouldn’t be able to definitively confirm it for three hours ?
More abstractly, I had prepared myself quite thoroughly for this mission, having contacted Dr. Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, director of the Institute for Neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University, and asking her if becoming aware of my own body sounds would drive me crazy. . “No,” she said. “Unless you have a predilection for being crazy to begin with – which, you know, might be.” This opened up a new avenue of research. I called Dr Oliver Mason, a psychotic disorders researcher at the University of Surrey, who has conducted studies tracking subjects’ experiences in anechoic chambers. “If you remove all sensory input,” Mason said, “our brain, which is still trying to tell signal from noise anyway, just sees signal where objectively there is none.” Even if they don’t have a mental illness, some people are more prone to conjure up phantom signals than others and will do so much faster, according to Mason. Most people tolerate short periods of time in anechoic chambers without light – about 20 minutes, for his experiments – “good”. People prone to “unusual perceptual experiences” – who think things are happening to them when they are not – often report having hallucinations in this small window.