In the end, the silence was a little too loud for me.
Photo of the author in the anechoic chamber, taken by Jørgen Rasmussen.
This article originally appeared on VICE Denmark.
How much silence is actually golden? I live in a bustling city, so I can't imagine drifting off to sleep at night without the sound of a car honking or my neighbors' baby crying. I know people living in smaller towns or out in the country fall asleep without those noises, but I just don't think I'd be able to. If I'm not subconsciously hearing the sounds of emergency sirens in my sleep, how will I know I'm actually asleep and not dead?
I'm not alone in this—noise-canceling experiments have found there can be such a thing as too little noise. A soundproof—or anechoic—chamber in the Orfield Laboratory in Minnesota holds the Guinness World Record for "Quietest Place on Earth," and while it's mainly used by manufacturers to test the sound of their products, the lab does allow supervised visits from the public. Its founder, Steve Orfield, has claimed the longest anyone has ever been able to spend inside was 45 minutes. He's said that some visitors even start hallucinating after a few minutes in the chamber.
I wanted to see for myself if absolute silence is actually unbearable, so I headed to another anechoic chamber—the one at Denmark's Technical University, just north of Copenhagen. While it usually doesn't allow visitors, the institute decided to make an exception for me—one of the perks of being a reporter.
When I arrived at the university, engineering assistant Jørgen Rasmussen guided me to his bright, silent chamber. He would supervise my visit. Walking in, I was immediately struck by a sense of nothing—just pure serenity. It felt like I had thick swaths of cotton in my ears. When I clapped my hands, the sound was immediately suffocated. When I tried to speak, it was as if the words were being sucked out of my mouth by the padding on the walls, the ceiling, and the floor.
That padding consisted of fluffy horizontal and vertical spikes, meant to stop any sound from reverberating. It looked like nothing I'd ever seen. To add to the feeling of disorientation, the soft, wire-mesh flooring gave me the sense that I was floating on nothing.
At 1 PM, Jørgen closed the heavy, padded door, and I started the stopwatch on my phone. Before shutting the door, he reminded me to call him if I was uncomfortable and wanted help getting out because nobody would be able to hear my screams—a comforting thought.
It only took seconds before I genuinely started worrying about the possibility of losing my mind. To fight it, I tried to kick back and make the most of the silence. I imagined I was an astronaut in space, completing an important mission. But after trying to moonwalk for a bit, I was distracted by what sounded like a fire alarm from really far away. I knew that was impossible. A minute in and my brain was already turning against me.
Moments later, the sound of the alarm faded, and I started hearing my pulse tick. I decided talking to myself was the only way I could remain sane. I described my outfit out loud, but, unsurprisingly, that didn't ease any kind of discomfort I felt.
My neck was the next body part to start making unexpected noises. Every time I turned my head, I heard something that reminded me most of the sound of a bag of chips being crushed. I moved to the middle of the room to lie down in order to refocus my senses—arguably my worst idea so far. On the floor, I felt like I was stoned, like I was levitating in a huge, fluorescent container. It was at this low point that I checked my stopwatch for the first time. Six minutes down.
I thought that if I couldn't stop my body from making all that noise, I'd better embrace it—so I tried humming along to its various rhythms and sounds. If the first sign of madness is talking to yourself, then the second surely has to be beatboxing to your own heartbeat.
At some point, in the 20 minutes that followed, I had the thought that I could maybe last longer if I went to sleep. I called Jørgen to ask him to turn off the lights. Another bad idea. Without any light or visual cues, I lost all sense of physical orientation and felt like I was floating away into nothingness. I waited for the moment my eyes would adjust to the darkness, but it never came.
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Though I can honestly say that seeing nothing and hearing nothing was pretty awful, I stayed inside. Around the 40-minute mark, I tried screaming, just to see if anyone would rush in, but nobody did.
A few minutes later, I started feeling really dizzy and reached for my phone. My hands were so sweaty that the fingerprint scanner didn't recognize me, and I couldn't get in. Panicking mildly, I entered the wrong pin three times before I finally managed to unlock it. Then, in my excitement over accessing my own phone, I almost dropped it. And that was it. The fear I felt in that moment when I almost lost my only way out of this black, soundless void, was all the motivation I needed to end the experiment. I called Jørgen and asked him to let me out.
I obviously felt a bit silly when the lights came on, and he came in to save me. I had hoped I would last for hours, emerging only after defeating silence itself. That didn't happen. When I finally stepped out of the room, it felt like I was walking into a rave—my ears popped with the sound of all the background noises we all normally block out.
I managed to stay inside for 48 minutes. I like to think that if I hadn't turned off the lights, I might have been able to stay there for longer. But in the end, the silence was a little too loud for me.