20 January 2019
Is sound driving us crazy?
Modern technological environments produce noise on a basis never before endured by
humans, and there is increasing evidence of serious threats to human and animal health,
according to author and scientist Dr Bruce Rapley.
Dr Rapley has written a book that shows how sound pollution from made-made
technology is hurting humans. In Conversations for a Small Planet, Volume 3, Biological Consequences of Low-Frequency Sound, Dr. Rapley combines his broad knowledge of science and technology to examine and explain the adverse health effects of sound pollution from man-made technology. The most recent example of technological sound pollution comes from wind turbines. However, he is quick to stress that this is only one source of modern environmental sound pollution – there are many others. Yet with the rapid expansion of wind turbines across the globe, this new technology is presenting us with increasing evidence of a serious threat to human health.
Dr. Bruce Rapley is an applied biologist with a specialist interest and expertise in the area
of environmental health, acoustics and cognition. Dr. Rapley has always had an interest in
the effects of external energy on living systems. Much of his research career has been
spent examining the effects of electromagnetic fields on biological systems ranging from
the cytogenetics of plants to human health and applied medical research.
To set the scene, Dr. Rapley provides a comprehensive background of the underlying
science that leads us to the understanding of how sound pollution can affect animals.
From aquatic to terrestrial mammals to humans, the underlying physiology and anatomy
explains why they all react adversely to certain sounds. Two poignant examples include
badgers in England and mink in Denmark, the latter responding with aggressive behaviour leading to injury and death, as well as reduced fecundity, auto-abortions and the production of abnormal pups with severe, often fatal, birth-defects.
Critical to the overall understanding of the effects of environmental sound pollution is the
working of the mammalian brain. Dr. Rapley explains, in simple language, how the brain
developed through evolution and how this relates to psychoacoustics. The
neurophysiology of the brain is responsible for the way it reacts to environmental sound,
some of which can trigger detrimental physiological responses. The concept that sound is
an information source, rather than just another form of ballistic energy, goes a long way
to explaining what we are observing in human near neighbours of wind turbine
That certain types of sound can produce a cascade of hormones that result in the “fight
or flight”Ł response is a critical step forward in understanding the importance of sound as
a pollutant as well as a health hazard. This conclusion is the result of 20 years of research
by Dr. Rapley and his international research team, culminating in a new pc-based
technology that can monitor and analyse environmental sound from the perspective of an
environmental pollutant: the SAM Technology – Soundscape Analysis and Monitoring.
In Volume 3 of the series, Conversations for a Small Planet, Dr. Rapley provides
examples of soundscape analysis using the new SAM technology that clearly
demonstrates why all low-frequency sound, and infrasound, is not equivalent. The sound
from many of the industrial noise polluters is quite different to the natural soundscape of
the “śwind in the trees”Ö or a “śbabbling brook”Ö, two examples proponents of various
infrastructure often use to compare emissions to.
Combined with his research for his PhD in Human Health and Acoustics with the New
Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), Dr. Rapley has a unique knowledge base and
understanding of how sound in the environment can affect cognition (brain function –
thinking processes) and physiological responses. That the human brain responds to subliminal sound is exemplified by the latest functional magnetic resonance imaging research from the German research team (Weichenberger et al. 2018). They conclude that:
“Low-frequency sound (including infrasound) can, and does, affect the brain, at sound power levels below conscious perception”Ł.
The Weichenberger study is the first to demonstrate that infrasound near the hearing
threshold may induce changes of neural activity across several brain regions, some of
which are known to be involved in auditory processing, while others are regarded as key
players in emotional and autonomic control. These findings allow the researchers to
speculate on how continuous exposure to subliminal infrasound could exert a pathogenic
influence on the organism, such as are observed in humans and animals living in close
proximity to wind turbine installations. Of critical importance to the public debate
regarding health effects of wind turbines is that the Weichenberger research negates the
so-called Nocebo Effect.
Dr. Rapley dedicates an entire chapter to explaining how sound is analysed before
moving on to explain how sound is a natural information source for animals. That
information source causes behaviour as well as deep, subconscious, physiological
responses that can lead to adverse health outcomes. To understand the mechanisms
involved, Dr. Rapley provides a clear, simple, explanation of the phenomenon of
stochastic resonance and why this is critical to understanding animal response to subthreshold sound. Stochastic Resonance is a natural phenomenon whereby a normally
sub-threshold signal (sound) can be detected when “śnoise”Ö is added to the signal.
Biological Consequences of Low-Frequency Sound, is written in a clear style and
uncomplicated language that the lay reader can readily understand. The text is
supplemented wtih 387 coloured images. In the final two chapters, Dr. Rapley knits
together the various strands of information, culminating with the latest German research.
Biological Consequences of Low-Frequency Sound is a richly illustrated text in plain
English that includes lots of laughs along the way as Dr. Rapley uses anecdotes to explain
and simplify the complex science. This is a very readable book and one which is
important as it alerts us as to the potential danger of our technology. It is a must-read for
anybody concerned about the overall health of the planet and its inhabitants, both animal
Published by the Bouncing Koala Press, New Zealand & Australia. Details on the book are here:
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