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

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

In the nineteenth century, as an American The settlers pushed west into the Great Plains, and stories began to emerge of formerly sedentary people who became depressed, anxious, irritable and even violent with their “wild madness.” There is some evidence in historical accounts or surveys, that cases of mental illness rose in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, particularly on the Great Plains. There is an alarming amount of madness happening in the new prairie states [sic] between farmers and their wives,” journalist Eugene Smalley wrote in Atlantic Ocean in 1893.

Fictional and historical accounts of this time and place often blame the “wild madness” on the isolation and bleak conditions the settlers faced. But many also mentioned something unexpected: the sounds of the prairie. During the winter, Smalley wrote, “the silence of death falls upon the vast landscape.” One character in the Manitoba settlement story “The Neutral Fuse” wrote a poem about the buzz soundtrack of the Plains, “I hate the wind with its wicked malice, and it deeply hates me, whispering and mocking when I try to sleep.”

These details captured the imagination of Alex de Vélez, 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 paper by Velez published in Historical Archeology He suggests that this strange soundscape—silence and gale-force winds—could have actually contributed to the settlers’ mental illness. It’s not a huge leap: Research on recent subjects has 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 those in urban environments, study author Alex de Velez compared recordings from places like Mexico City and recordings from Great Plains. ProtoplasmaKid, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons Wikimedia

Velez wanted to understand if there was anything special about the sound in the prairie. He couldn’t go back in time to record, unfortunately, but Phillies was able to collect more recent recordings from plains in Nebraska and Kansas, which picked up noises like wind and rain, and from urban areas like Barcelona or Mexico City, which were marked by weather sounds as well as traffic noise. and pedestrians. He played the recordings in software that creates visual representations of the audio-frequency spectrum in the recordings and compares the results to each other and maps the audio frequencies that the human ear can pick up and hear.

Velez found that although all landscapes contained many sounds that humans could normally hear, city sounds were more varied, spreading more across the range of human hearing and forming something like white noise. But in the prairie, there was a bit of background noise. The sounds present coincide with a particularly sensitive part of the human hearing range that is most easily perceived by the brain.

“The way I can describe it is: It’s so quiet until all of a sudden, your voice comes out an act Hear, you can’t hear anything but that, Velez says.

So one can imagine how a newly arrived settler, accustomed to the sounds of a relatively more urban, small-town, or woodland environment, would find every cluck that breaks the silence of the prairie—every frog squawk or drop of rainwater—be eerily (and annoying) distinct Like a clicking pen in a quiet library.

For Adrian KC Lee, a brain audiologist at the University of Washington who was not involved in the study, the description of the Great Plains' acoustic scene is reminiscent of being in an anechoic chamber — a chamber designed to turn off echoes.
For Adrian KC Lee, a brain audiologist at the University of Washington who was not involved in the study, the description of the Great Plains’ acoustic scene is reminiscent of being in an anechoic chamber — a chamber designed to turn off echoes. Mihaelawojcik, CC BY 4.0, via Commons Wikimedia

Describing the Great Plains audio scene Adrian KC Lee, a brain audiologist at the University of Washington who was not involved in the Phillies study, is reminiscent of sensory deprivation or being in an anechoic chamber — a room designed to turn off echoes. In these cases, even the smallest sounds, like the rustle of clothes or even your heartbeat, can become impossible to ignore. As Lee pointed out, the human brain will naturally adapt to its environment, essentially raising or lowering the sound to better discern what’s going on.

“The ability to adapt is really to survive,” Lee says. “Now, if you’re adapting to a very low-sound environment and suddenly there’s a loud sound coming in, of course it’s going to get you in trouble.”

Jacob Freefield, a research historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, has written extensively about the Homestead Act, one of the great motivations for westward expansion. He says he has not encountered prairie frenzy in his own work, but notes that recent recordings used by Velez may be missing some of the sounds that early settlers had heard, such as the howling of wolves or the gurgling of herds of millions of people. American bison. And if the settlers lived in hidden houses or dugouts, they might also have been treated to the usual sound of insects or other creatures living in the earthen walls.

In addition to the lack of records from the 19th century, studying the symptoms of mental illness in a group of people who lived more than 100 years ago is also very difficult. As Velez notes, the specific language or nouns used for conditions can change, records may be inconsistent, and diagnoses can be influenced by societal attitudes — ideas about gender roles or prejudice against certain groups, for example.

Jacob Freeveld, a historian not affiliated with the study, wonders if it is possible to accurately account for all the sounds settlers might hear, including insects and other creatures that lived in the walls of their earthen homes.
Jacob Freeveld, a historian not affiliated with the study, wonders if it is possible to accurately account for all the sounds settlers might hear, including insects and other creatures that lived in the walls of their earthen homes. Nebraska State Historical Society, nbhips 10216

Likewise, it may be impossible to quantify the amount of any episode of irritability or depression that came from the sound scene and the amount of the reaction to stress or isolation, which may be particularly exciting. While the eastern people may have lived in small, tighter communities, the neighbors were often miles away from out on the plains. The transition may be more difficult for women, who are often tasked with staying home, limiting their already slim chances of stimulation and socialization. Add to that the fear of freezing, crop failure, or monetary ruin ingrained in the dwelling and it’s no wonder some people have experienced stress.

In the end, Velez’s work cannot prove how much the prairie frenzy really affected the settlers, but it finally provided him with an 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 McClung winds–that might have affected on the minds of the settlers.

It’s a reminder of how sounds have the power to shape our lives, even today and even beyond the Great Plains. Lee said many scientists are questioning whether the changing sound landscape of the pandemic – due to lockdowns and the move to work from home – has implications for physical and mental well-being.

And for more, note that sounds do not travel in the thinner Martian atmosphere as they do on Earth. If the soundscape of the prairie leads to anxiety and depression for some, does that mean that one day, when humans reach Mars, the settlers will curse the silence again?


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