This is not sponsored, but instead a motherhood public service announcement… I visited the quietest place on earth. Because some days, my soul longs for quiet. A chance to catch my breath, think an uninterrupted thought, and give my senses a break from overexertion. With a home office, two boys that fight, play, and exist loudly, and a toddler whose favorite words are “mama” and “eh eh eh” (translation: “I want that”), it can get rough. Especially in the winter when we’re cooped up inside.
On a whim one day, I googled “quietest place on earth.” I imagined I’d find references to vast deserts or remote caves. When the results popped up, I did a double-take. Minneapolis?! That couldn’t be right.
I kept clicking and reading, and discovered it to be true. Well, mostly. For years, the Guinness World Record for the quietest place on earth was held by a small room at Orfield Labs in Minneapolis; until recently, when the title was challenged and bestowed upon a lab on the campus of Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Steve Orfield, the owner of Orfield Labs, expects that his lab would have kept the title if the two places were tested the same way. But even if it is the second quietest place on Earth, I couldn’t help but wonder — Why is there such a quiet place in the Twin Cities? And, can I please go there?
I was so intrigued about the silence of that room that I pitched a story to a science editor and requested an invitation to visit the lab. A few weeks later I was parked in one of the few spots outside a modest, ivy-covered building that used to be Sound80, a recording studio used by Prince, Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, and others. Now it’s a state-of-the-art lab that specializes in measuring how people respond to indoor lighting, sounds, temperatures, and air quality.
I was nervous but excited. I kept wondering what it would be like to be in such a quiet place. Not just a place without kids, but a place without the sounds of traffic and neighbors, nature, and even the electronic hum of lights and appliances. Could I even handle it?
Some stories claim that no one is able to stay in Orfield’s quiet lab for more than an hour. While that theory isn’t true, the fact remains that some people find such silence disorienting and uncomfortable even when it’s not prolonged. Scientists don’t know a lot about how silence affects people. Places like this, called anechoic chambers because sound doesn’t echo there, are used mostly for high-tech tests and experiments, not human studies.
I read about what to expect before I entered the chamber, but I was still surprised. Steve led me into the small room mid-conversation. I was trying to stay engaged in what he was saying, but my brain was working overtime trying to figure out what was happening to my senses. At first it felt a little bit like being underwater or having ear plugs in. Instead of radiating outward from his mouth and being reflected by the walls and other surfaces in the room, Steve’s words hit the walls and ceiling, covered with strategically shaped and patterned fiberglass sound absorbers, and the sound immediately died. Even the light and air circulation systems are designed to minimize noise.
The quiet room is structurally isolated from the building it’s inside—that’s the other main way it minimizes noise, by keeping vibrations that carry noise from entering the room in the first place. To give me the full experience, Steve closed the thick, fiberglass-covered door and turned off the lights. As my brain adjusted, I looked around and listened to the silence. It felt peaceful to hear nothing but the whooshing of my breath and the rhythmic ticking of Steve’s watch. Some people can hear their heart beating. But then I noticed the loud gurgling in my stomach. The nails-on-a-chalkboard sound of my ultra-smooth gel pen on paper. The deafening sound of me turning a page in my notebook.
In the quietest place on earth, I was the sound.
I’m not used to that. Between the kids and the dishwasher, television and traffic, alarms and social media alerts, I often feel lost in the noise. Struggling to be heard.
As I’ve reflected on my visit to one of the quietest places on earth, I’ve realized that for me, one of the hardest things about motherhood is feeling swallowed up in the constant clamor of life. The quiet room reminded me that I make noise too, just by being alive, and that my noise has value. I deserve to be heard, celebrated, and recognized—gurgling stomach and all. And so do you.
Sometimes you need to sit lonely on the floor in a quiet room in order to hear your own voice and not let it drown in the noise of others.
~Charlotte Eriksson in You’re Doing Just Fine
Kendra Redmond is a freelance science writer and editor living in Bloomington, MN with her husband and three kids. She aims to inspire curiosity, unless her kids are supposed to be in bed—then she’d rather they keep their questions to themselves. You can read more of her work at KendraRedmond.com.