Could I Survive the ‘Quietest Place on Earth’?

The day of my record attempt, Orfield crossed the room’s threshold, and his voice immediately sounded far away, as the wedges absorbed his sound waves. After I followed him inside, the sound became intimate. I had been warned that anyone speaking to me inside an anechoic chamber would sound as if they were standing just next to me, murmuring into my ear. It’s an aural illusion: In a normal room, the only way for us to hear speech directly from someone’s mouth, with no reverberation, is for him or her to talk right into our ear.

The chamber was outfitted with an office chair for my three-hour stay. Orfield Laboratories’ gray-ponytailed manager, Michael Role, outlined the complicated terms I would need to adhere to in order to set a new record: I would need to stay in the room for three hours. It was my choice to have 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 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 in here,” Role said, handing me a blue blanket — which I spread across the floor — before shutting the door (unlocked, he assured me), leaving me in lightless silence.

To start, I lay on my stomach — a position I felt was relaxed enough for my body to acclimatize to the lack of stimulation, but uncomfortable enough to prevent my immediately falling asleep, which would have been a mortifying turn of events to explain to my employer, who expected me to provide a detailed written description of my experience. I resolved to lie on my back and pray the terror of being fired would be enough to keep me awake in the dark for three hours, despite the clinical diagnosis of narcolepsy that makes it virtually impossible for me to stay awake in even moderately cozy semidark conditions. (I had not known that there would be a blanket in the chamber — my kryptonite.)

Once supine, I experienced the unique and briefly frightening sensation that my ears were traveling up very fast in an elevator while the rest of my body fell gently toward Earth. I had the distinct feeling of my ear canals filling with an in-rushing silence that was somehow thicker than the quiet I had first noticed in the chamber. Within seconds, this ceased, and everything sounded — or rather, continued to have no sound — exactly the same as before. I groped around for the notepad and pen I brought and recorded the observations that started to roll in: “gray ponytail,” “thick silence.”

But was I recording them? It was impossible to tell in the unrelenting dark. What if the free hotel pen didn’t work? What if I took reams of interesting notes over the course of three hours, only to discover, when the lights flickered on, that the pen had been dry and recorded nothing? Why do I, a professional journalist, constantly find myself relying on free hotel pens during crucial moments of my assignments? Could I press hard enough with an inkless pen to be able to reveal the indentations of my handwriting after the fact by rubbing over them with crayon? Wasn’t it just my luck that the only pen I had brought was very likely incapable of writing, and that I had idiotically placed myself under conditions where I would be unable to definitively confirm this for three hours?

In more abstract ways, I had prepared rather thoroughly for this assignment, having contacted Dr. Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, the director of the Neuroscience Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, and asked her if becoming aware of my own body sounds would make me go insane. “No,” she said. “Unless you have a predilection for being insane to begin with — which, you know, could be.” That opened up a new avenue of inquiry. I called Dr. Oliver Mason, a researcher of psychotic disorders at the University of Surrey, who has led studies monitoring subjects’ experiences in anechoic chambers. “If you take away all sensory input,” Mason said, “our brains, which are always trying to distinguish signal from noise anyway, simply see signal where there objectively isn’t one.” Even if they have no mental illness, some people are more prone to conjuring phantom signals than others and will do so much more quickly, according to Mason. Most people tolerate short periods of time in lightless anechoic chambers — about 20 minutes, for his experiments — “fine.” Individuals prone to “unusual perceptual experiences” — who think things are happening to them when they’re not — often report experiencing hallucinations within that small window.

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