in Blog, Deep Thoughts

Pastabagel’s Background Noise Theory

At Metafiler, Pastabagel writes that he believes some people require constant background noise (where noise is defined not just as auditory, but also visual, etc.) in order to escape self-reflection. That is, some people are so afraid of self-examination that they do everything they can to avoid it by cluttering their life with a chaos of sight and sound:

Have you ever known people who have to turn on a TV or a radio the moment they enter a room, or can’t stand to do work without some sound on? These are people who are desperately afraid of confronting some truth about themselves, so they try to drown it out with constant distractions. And people like this tend to congregate (because they all like the noise the others are putting out), which is why whole neighborhoods are like this. The noise is clamourous and demanding of your attention, and therefore it’s safe. They can deal with the street, they can’t deal with what’s in their heads.

The background noise doesn’t have to be auditory either. Clutter and general messiness are optical versions of the same background noise. People will buy junk and never throw anything away because they are creating a visual garden of distractions. Their eye can dance over a room for hours and see different things in the clutter each of which triggers some superficial memory. But the mind is so busy processing what the eye sees and recalling the seen objects context that theirs no time for thinking the thought “Why do I collect all this stuff?” The classic case here is the suburban family that fills their house with junk, or the teenager who plasters their room with posters, etc.

The noise can also be mental — constant text messaging, video game playing, etc to fill up the isolated islands to downtime in everyone’s day. The point is not simply that they like the noise, it’s that they create the noise. The turmoil they create out here mirrors the turmoil in their mind, and drowns it out.

I know people like this. In many ways, I am one myself. (To some extent, we all are.) But I find that the times I am most relaxed, am happiest, are the times the background noise is absent. Why do I love being alone in the woods? No background noise of any kind. Everything is a blank slate.

Very zen.

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  1. While I agree that background noise and those who seek it can be annoying, I try to stop short of judging their reasons for doing so. I note you edited out the more offensive of his comments.

    There are a lot of reasons to need background noise. The biggest one I can think of is depression. You need a distraction to get away from the pain. It has nothing to do with being “desperately afraid of self examination”, it’s just an illness.

    Yeah, quiet is nice. But I’m keeping music on while I work, and it’s not about, well, anything mentioned. It’s just a thing. *shrug* Pastabagel’s pronouncement seemed far-reaching, and more than a little ridiculous to me.

  2. I go a little nuts if I’m sitting for too long with no sound of any sort. Especially in civilized (home, work, city, suburban) environments. Even in the “wild” I prefer having some breeze, shifting leaves, etc.

    On the other hand, I don’t feel the need for that sort of visual stimulation. I like to keep myself occupied, of course, but I rarely (for instance) have the television on as background noise. Indeed, I find it too distracting. I prefer the radio or my music library. (If there’s a baseball game on then I’ll often turn on the TV in the background, but I’ll happily wander away and use the radio instead.)

    I do sometimes get overstimulated and need to get away from it all. But usually that means going back to my usual, comfortable music, and reading something low-pressure or just working on chores around the house. Usually I feel this way when I’ve recently been spending a lot of time doing planned activities that require a lot of thought (especially competitive activities like Magic or poker), and I need some unstructured time.

  3. I note you edited out the more offensive of his comments.


    Actually, it never occurred to me that the comments were offensive so much as naive. Those three paragraphs resonated so much with me that I had to share them. Part of this is because I’ve been in purge mode, getting rid of “clutter”-type noise from my life.

    Now that you mention it, I can see how the background thing noise does have a correlation with Depression. The people I think of — including myself — who need the noise are usually Depressed. Interesting.

  4. Also, it makes me cranky that the comments format correctly but that this template’s BLOCKQUOTE tag strips linebreaks. What’s up with that?

  5. Maybe it’s an occupational hazard but (music teacher) but it is difficult for me to have music on while I’m working at home or in my office. I’ll try to but I find myself sitting and listening instead of working. I can drive and have the radio on and do fine though.

    It was interesting dealing with kids about this (again) today. I played a recording form them and invariably I’ll have to pause the track and ask them to be quiet and just listen to the music. It never fails, as soon as I play a recording for them they start to talk. I think that our society treats music as background noise instead of listening deeply to the music. It probably all depends on the music listened to.

  6. Agreed, JD, about the blockquote thing. Since we’re programmed to see those types of boxes as quotes, my mind keeps telling me that there aren’t any comments. When I realize that there are comments, my brain is protesting that they sound like quotes.

    Or something.

    I should have just said that I agree.

  7. From my understanding, the desire and need for background noise is basically a personality trait that separates introverts from extroverts. As Amy Jo mentioned, introverts tend to provide so much noise inside their heads that extra noise is overwhelming and unwelcome, where extroverts need to generate the stimulation externally. I’m very hesitant to characterize the desire for background noise as anything but a difference among people; what I find depressing is just fine for someone else.

  8. If I didn’t find the whole think so judgmentally naive I could have gotten really offended by it.

    Personally, when I’m depressed (I’ve had 2 bouts of clinical depression — with official diagnosis and all), I want quiet. I want to be left alone and I want no noise, no TV, no radio to interfere with my wallowing experience.

    When I’m doing well, feeling good, I want sound! I’m not into TV so much (no cable), but I want music.

    Reason? ADHD. It’s harder for me to concentrate, think, be introspective in dead quiet. The noise (visual or auditory) fills the part of my brain that would be distracted by every little stimuli from the flicker of a light to a tiny red dot on the wall. My thoughts would race out of control. The stimulation of my brain by other means (music, etc) allows me to focus on what it is I want to think about, do, say.

    So, I find Pastabagel’s comments both judgemental and naive. Just because his/her brain is incapable of handling multiple stimuli, just because he/she may avoid thinking by turning on the stimuli, doesn’t mean we all do.

  9. Sorry for the second post… I forgot to note something…

    I’m an extrovert. And, trust me, there’s a LOT of noise inside my head.

    According to 2 psychologists and a psychiatrist I have spoken to about it, there has been no research conducted that has proven any of the commonly held ideas about the popular theories of introversion/extroversion psychology (such as Meyers-Briggs or the “4 personality types” lady whose name escapes me right now…).

    Hey, JD: on blockquotes stripping your linebreaks? My template does that too. Try putting a code where you want the linebreak. I use “em” “/em” where the quotes are pointy brackets (hehe I don’t know the name for those!). It adds a blank line in my blockquotes. Trial and error…

  10. Some people seem to need background noise or just continual entertainment or busyness just to escape thinking about themselves and their situation. They have found it too frightening to do so, sadly. One day they will have to face up to what life is really all about.

    PS. Have you tried Nucleus? More flexible than WordPress, IMO.

  11. When I was a teenager I always had the TV or music going. With parents and extended family always supplying and encouraging the stimulas.

    I don’t think it was unusual and probably was just thought of as entertainment. I would think a child raised in an entertainment family would be subjected to some amount of noise. I could see seeking it out if you find yourself in a very quiet place. But now that I’m middle aged I can feel a nervousness if I arrive home and don’t get either a TV or music on. I’m not sure if I am trying to recreate the comfort that I used to feel thru the stimulas. I also tell myself I need at least two cups of coffee in the morning to get going so I may be experiencing several addictive personality qualms, stimulas only being one of them.