In one of his occasional geek raveboy moves, my brother Kent sent the family a tidbit from the July issue of Physics World, which, between recipes for butterscotch cookies and the lovelorn advice column, had an article called “Can Noise Actually Boost Brain Power?” Basically, a pair of Japanese physicists discovered that “random noise” may help humans process information more efficiently the latest biological system to exhibit “stochastic resonance,” which as far as I can tell, is a theory climatologists have developed to explain the ice ages. Don’t worry, I didn’t quite get that part either.
Either way, it sounds good to me, since I have a white noise machine purring on my nightstand every night. This may seem grotesquely yuppie and high maintenance, but my fondness for white noise has humble beginnings. My family suffers from a disease called the “croup,” which is a bronchial condition that closes up the windpipe of anyone unlucky enough to get it. It’s incredibly terrifying, and it seems like we got the croup every six months or so growing up. The only way to survive was to breathe as much hot steam as you could, as quickly as possible. Countless times my dad would bound into the bedroom and take one of the choking children into the shower for a steam bath lemme tellya, it really sucked.
Then we started using humidifiers, and since the croup died down after that, I equated the vaporizer and the sound it made – with blissful safety. I don’t carry a noise machine around because I hate other noises, I do it because it gives me an enormous sense of well-being, something others need drugs and Jim Beam to accomplish.
My own stochastic resonance happens every night, but I feel like I deal with it every day in the movies. The trailers we cut today are immeasurably helped by the random blasts of music in them, giving them excitement and narrative drive. During production, we’d often record “room tone,” which is that unheard sonic “feeling” of a room that can be edited into any scene to give a sense of continuous place.
By the way, for those of you at home just trying out white noise, remember that turning it off in the morning can seem quite uncathectic, like being ripped out of the womb all untimely-like. Also, you don’t need a blindingly expensive Sound Soother from Sharper Image to do it right (in fact, some of those soundmakers are on digital loops that you gradually recognize, making it agonizing). A fan will work fine, as long as it’s pointing away from you, or my thinking-on-your-feet favorite, the radio tuned to 87.9 and turned up a bit. Do not use AM radio – there’s all kinds of shit that can crop up there, especially at night due to the atmospheric skip. You’ll go to sleep nicely, then be jarred 2 hours later by the results of the Ipswich-Chelsea cricket match on BBC Shortwave.
today’s Kooky Stochastic Resonance Korner was brought to you by Ian Williams and Chopin Blake