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Science

Is the silence of the Great Plains to blame for the “prairie madness”?

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In the 1800s as an American As settlers were forced westward into the Great Plains, stories began to emerge of previously stable people who became depressed, anxious, irritable, and even violent because of “prairie madness.” And there is some evidence in historical records or surveys that points to an increase in cases of mental illness in the mid-1800s and early 1900s, especially in the Great Plains. “An alarming amount of madness is happening in the new prairie states. [sic] among farmers and their wives,” journalist Eugene Smalley wrote in Atlantic Ocean in 1893.

Both fictional and historical accounts of this time and place often blame the “prairie frenzy” for the isolation and grim conditions the settlers faced. But many also mention something unexpected: the sounds of the prairie. Smalley wrote that in winter “the silence of death rests on a vast landscape”. And a character in Manitoba settler short story “Neutral Fuse” Nellie McClung writes a poem about the humming soundtrack of the plains: “I hate the wind with its vicious malice, and it hates me with the same deep hatred, hissing and taunting when I try to sleep.”

These details captured the imagination of Alex D. Veles, a paleoanthropologist at the State University of New York at Oswego who studies the evolution of human hearing, and made him wonder: is there any truth to this idea? Now a new article by Veles, published in Historical archeology suggests that this eerie soundscape—silence and the howling of the wind—may have indeed contributed to the mental illness of the settlers. That’s not all that much: studies with modern subjects have shown that what we hear can exacerbate not only sleep, stress, and mental health problems, but even cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

To determine how prairie sounds differ in frequency from sounds from more urban environments, study author Alex D. Vélez compared recordings from places like Mexico City with those from the Great Plains. ProtoplasmaKid, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Vélez wanted to see if there was anything special about the prairie soundscape. Unfortunately, he couldn’t go back in time to record, but Vélez was able to gather more recent recordings from the plains of Nebraska and Kansas, which captured noises like wind and rain, and from urban areas like Barcelona or Mexico City, with weather image. sounds, as well as the noise of vehicles and pedestrians. He ran the recordings into a program that created a visual representation of the audio spectrum in the recordings and compared the results to each other and to a map of the audio frequencies that the human ear can pick up and hear.

Vélez found that while all landscapes contained a variety of sounds that people could naturally hear, the sounds of the city were more varied, spread more within the range of human hearing, and formed something like white noise. But there was practically no background noise on the prairie. And what sounds there coincided with a particularly sensitive part of human hearing, which the brain notices more readily.

“I can describe it like this: it is very quiet here, until suddenly there is a noise that you do you hear, except for this you don’t hear anything, says Veles.

Thus, one can imagine how a newcomer settler, accustomed to the sounds of a relatively more urban, provincial, or forested environment, can detect every prairie-breaking cluck of chickens, every frog croak, or drop of rainwater to be just as terribly distinct (and annoying). ), like the clicking of a pen in a quiet library.

For Adrian K.S.  Lee, an auditory brain researcher at the University of Washington who was not involved in the study, described the soundscape of the Great Plains as being like being in an anechoic chamber, a room designed to suppress echoes.
For Adrian K.S. Lee, an auditory brain researcher at the University of Washington who was not involved in the study, described the soundscape of the Great Plains as being like being in an anechoic chamber, a room designed to suppress echoes. Michaelawojczyk, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The description of the soundscape of the Great Plains is reminiscent of Adriana K.S. Lee, an auditory brain specialist at the University of Washington who was not involved in Velez’s study, about sensory deprivation or being in an anechoic chamber, a room designed to suppress echoes. In such cases, even the smallest sound, such as the rustle of clothes or even your own heartbeat, becomes impossible to ignore. As Lee noted, the human brain naturally adapts to its environment, turning up or down the volume to better distinguish what is happening.

“Being adaptive is really essential to survival,” Lee says. “Now if you adapt to a very quiet environment and suddenly there is a loud sound, of course it will give you trouble.”

Jacob Friefeld, research historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, has written extensively about the Homestead Act, one of the main drivers of westward expansion. He says he has not encountered the phenomenon of steppe madness in his work, but notes that contemporary recordings used by Veles may be missing some sounds that early settlers would have heard, such as the howling of wolves or the purring of millions of herds of American bison. And if the settlers lived in sod houses or dugouts, they may also have heard the regular sounds of insects or other creatures living in earthen walls.

In addition to the lack of 19th-century records, studying the symptoms of mental illness in people who lived more than 100 years ago is also very difficult. As Veles points out, the specific language or names used for conditions can change, records can be inconsistent, and diagnoses can be influenced by social attitudes — such as ideas about gender roles or prejudice against certain groups.

Jacob Friefeld, a historian not associated with the study, wonders if all the sounds the settlers heard could be accurately explained, including the insects and other creatures that lived within the walls of their filthy homes.
Jacob Friefeld, a historian not associated with the study, wonders if all the sounds the settlers heard could be accurately explained, including the insects and other creatures that lived within the walls of their filthy homes. Nebraska State Historical Society, nbhips 10216

Similarly, it may be impossible to know to what extent a particular episode of irritability or depression was due to the soundscape and to what extent was a reaction to stress or isolation, the latter of which could be especially harsh. While people further east could live in small, tight-knit communities, once on the plains, neighbors were often miles away. The transition was perhaps most difficult for the women, who often had to stay at home, limiting their already meager prospects for stimulation and socialization. Add to this the fear of freezing, crop failure, or financial ruin inherent in backyard farming, and it is not surprising that some people experienced stress.

In the end, Vélez’s work cannot prove how much the prairie madness really affected the settlers, but it finally gave him the answer to the question that captured his imagination: there might indeed be something in the soundscape of the plains—in the silence of Smalley and the Hateful Wind. McClung – this could have influenced the minds of the settlers.

It is a reminder of how sounds affect our lives even today and even beyond the Great Plains. Li said many scientists are wondering if the pandemic’s changing soundscapes due to lockdowns and the shift to work from home have had an impact on physical and mental well-being.

Going further, he notes that sounds do not travel as well in the rarefied atmosphere of Mars as they do on Earth. If the soundscape of the prairies makes some anxious and depressed, does that mean that one day, when humans get to Mars, the settlers will once again curse the silence?


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