Could I Survive the ‘Quietest Place on Earth’?
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In a leafy Minneapolis neighborhood under a thick cloak of ivy stands a modest concrete building. Contained within the building is silence exceeding the bounds of human perception. This hush is preserved in a small room, expensively engineered to be echoless. Certain people find the promise of such quiet irresistible; it entices them, like a soundless siren call, to visit the building at great personal cost. The room of containment, technically an “anechoic chamber,” is the quietest place on the planet — according to some. According to others, it’s more like the second-quietest. It is quieter than any place most people will ever go, unless they make a point of going to multiple anechoic chambers over the course of a lifetime.
What happens to people inside the windowless steel room is the subject of wild and terrible speculation. Public fascination with the room exploded 10 years ago, with an article on The Daily Mail’s website. “The Longest Anyone Can Bear Earth’s Quietest Place is 45 Minutes,” The Mail declared. The story left readers to extrapolate their own conclusions about why this was so from the short, haunting observations of the room’s soft-spoken proprietor, Steven J. Orfield, of Orfield Laboratories.
“You’ll hear your heart beating,” Orfield was quoted as saying. And: “In the anechoic chamber, you become the sound.” The experience was so “disconcerting,” The Daily Mail reported, that no one had ever “survived” a visit of longer than 45 minutes. In the decade since, the legend has been propagated, and sometimes further embellished with details about room-induced hallucinations, in outlets from Smithsonian Magazine (the official journal of the Smithsonian Institution) to UberFacts (an online trivia font with 13.6 million Twitter followers, no connection to the ride-sharing app and a tenuous one to facts).
Earlier this year, members of the public began, apparently spontaneously, and via TikTok and YouTube, convincing one another that the room was created as an invitation to compete; that spending a few hours alone inside it entitled a person to a cash prize; that the value of this cash prize was up to $7 million; and that anyone could attempt to win it. Orfield Labs was bombarded with phone calls and emails from people demanding a shot at winning the money. There was no contest. But the mystique of the too-quiet room, if construed by outsiders, has perhaps been bolstered by the company’s website, which advertises an experience called “The Orfield Challenge,” whereby, for $600 an hour, a person can attempt to set a new “record” for time spent in the chamber.
A person inside an anechoic chamber will not hear nothing. The human body is in constant motion — inhaling and expelling air, settling limbs into new positions, pumping blood — and so, constantly creating sounds (although usually we cannot hear them). Environments we think of as ultraquiet are typically quite a bit louder than the floor of the human hearing threshold, which is around zero decibels; a library reading room, for instance, might clock in at 40 decibels. An anechoic chamber does not sharpen hearing; it removes the noise that otherwise drowns out the soft, ceaseless sounds of a body, enabling them to be perceived with novel clarity. The body is only totally still — totally silent — in death.
Much of the lore about the chamber’s propensity for mind-annihilation centers on the concept of blood sounds. It is an oft-reported experience, in anechoic chambers, for visitors to become aware of the sound of blood pumping in their heads, or sloshing through veins. Hearing the movement of blood through the body is supposedly something like an absolute taboo, akin to witnessing the fabrication of Chicken McNuggets — an ordeal after which placid existence is irreparably shattered.
Owing either to blood-sound insanity or cost, the record duration in the Orfield chamber was, until very recently, just two hours. I wanted to set a new world record for something, even if it was a world record that, for legal reasons, I could not describe as being in any way affiliated with or sanctioned by the famous Guinness inventory of world records — on which, more later. Even more than that, I wanted to hear the forbidden blood song. I emailed Orfield Labs to book a three-hour attempt and, a few days later, boarded a plane to Minnesota.
Orfield Laboratories is laid out like a rabbit warren: a largely windowless hodgepodge of isolated rooms and passageways of unpredictable sizes and shapes arranged along a meandering path of blind curves. There is historical logic here: The building was constructed in 1970 as a recording studio, with spaces for multiple musicians to work concurrently without polluting one another’s sessions. In its musical heyday, when the building was a studio known as Sound 80, these included Bob Dylan and Prince.
Steven J. Orfield describes his facility as a multisensory design-research operation. He bought the building in 1990, in part to enlarge his company’s physical capacity for product research and development, in part because he had recently undergone heart surgery and hoped a big project would take his mind off his health. At the time, the anechoic chamber was sitting inside a storage locker. Orfield had purchased it in the 1980s, when Sunbeam, the appliance manufacturer, was closing its Chicago facilities. Multiple multinational technology corporations had expressed interest in acquiring the chamber, Orfield said, but were unwilling or unable to remove it from Sunbeam premises with the haste the company demanded. Figuring it a good investment, he paid members of the University of Chicago football team to disassemble the chamber and load it onto three semi-trucks.
In 1994, Orfield reassembled the chamber just steps from the room where the disco hit “Funkytown” was recorded and put it to use for his product-design clients. According to Orfield, the chamber has helped improve (that is: decrease) the sound of products from Sleep Number mattresses (which inflate and deflate as they are adjusted) to Whirlpool dishwashers (no more clunk between cycles).
Before the legend of the anechoic chamber ran amok through sectors of the internet where crazy-but-true (though occasionally false) facts flourish, Orfield offered public tours on Friday afternoons to anyone who donated $20 to a local food pantry. But once the chamber became an object of worldwide intrigue, “We found that we were becoming very burdened by our fame,” he said. “After about five years of giving everything away for free, we decided: We’re done with that.”
Few of the sounds of daily life travel straight from their source into our ears. This is because, indoors especially, many sound waves first encounter hard surfaces along their journey — ceilings, lamps, laptops — and reflect off them. Outdoors, sound waves have fewer opportunities to bounce back at us (and back at us and back at us, like pinballs traveling through a machine). They can issue into the air and keep traveling away until they dissipate entirely. To make an extremely quiet room, then, you must create an indoor space that is, as much as possible, like standing in an empty meadow.
In 1943, the United States Army set out to do this, while developing equipment for the tactical-deception units known collectively as the Ghost Army. They were devising a system of enormous speakers so powerful that the cacophony of man and machine sounds they broadcast would convince combatants that thousands of American soldiers were present in a location they were not. But the thing the speakers were designed to do — alert anyone within a 15-mile radius that an immense ground force was advancing — made them inconvenient to test in America, where many Americans lived at the time. The Army needed an environment that mimicked outdoor conditions, from which no sound would escape.
So scientists at Harvard University’s Electro-Acoustic Laboratory began testing nearly 1,000 shapes and structures to see which absorbed the most sound. A wedge absorbs a wide spectrum of sound: high frequencies at the narrow end; increasingly lower frequencies as it thickens toward the base. The scientists liked a 46-inch-long wedge made of fiberglass best, so the government bought 19,000 of them. The end result, constructed at Harvard, resembled the nave of a cathedral built by aliens to worship radial symmetry, or an iron maiden for punishing giant cubes. In photos, stalactite wedges jut from its 38-foot ceiling. Stalagmite wedges protrude from its floor. Wedges cover every surface of every wall, their knife edges arrayed in a hypnotic pattern of alternating horizontal and vertical slices to trap sound at all angles.
The scientists Edward R. Myrbeck and Arthur A. Janszen testing a loudspeaker in Harvard’s anechoic chamber in 1948.Credit…Harvard University Archives
Orfield’s chamber follows the same design principles, albeit at a fraction of the size. It is a six-sided box with walls of four-inch insulated steel, suspended by springs inside a larger five-sided box (also with walls of steel), itself contained within the larger laboratory (with walls of 12-inch concrete). The chamber itself is behind a hinged steel block that, when closed, resembles the door of an industrial refrigerator, and when opened, the door to an industrial refrigerator that has been affixed to a Cubist sculpture of Fozzie Bear. Rigid brown fiberglass wedges press in upon it from all sides. The wedges poking up from the ground are visible beneath a walkable mesh floor of aircraft cable. The whole room smells like old, dry paper and is lightly bouncy.
The day of my record attempt, Orfield crossed the room’s threshold, and his voice immediately sounded far away, as the wedges absorbed his sound waves. After I followed him inside, the sound became intimate. I had been warned that anyone speaking to me inside an anechoic chamber would sound as if they were standing just next to me, murmuring into my ear. It’s an aural illusion: In a normal room, the only way for us to hear speech directly from someone’s mouth, with no reverberation, is for him or her to talk right into our ear.
The chamber was outfitted with an office chair for my three-hour stay. Orfield Laboratories’ gray-ponytailed manager, Michael Role, outlined the complicated terms I would need to adhere to in order to set a new record: I would need to stay in the room for three hours. It was my choice to have the lights on or off. Faced with the prospect of staring at a 12-by-10-foot room for three hours with no adornments except a chair and hundreds of hanging fiberglass pyramids, I opted for total darkness. “Sometimes people like to lay down or sit on the floor, so I leave a nice padded blanket in here,” Role said, handing me a blue blanket — which I spread across the floor — before shutting the door (unlocked, he assured me), leaving me in lightless silence.
To start, I laid on my stomach — a position I felt was relaxed enough for my body to acclimatize to the lack of stimulation, but uncomfortable enough to prevent my immediately falling asleep, which would have been a mortifying turn of events to explain to my employer, who expected me to provide a detailed written description of my experience. I resolved to lie on my back and pray the terror of being fired would be enough to keep me awake in the dark for three hours, despite the clinical diagnosis of narcolepsy that makes it virtually impossible for me to stay awake in even moderately cozy semidark conditions. (I had not known that there would be a blanket in the chamber — my kryptonite.)
Once supine, I experienced the unique and briefly frightening sensation that my ears were traveling up very fast in an elevator while the rest of my body fell gently toward Earth. I had the distinct feeling of my ear canals filling with an in-rushing silence that was somehow thicker than the quiet I had first noticed in the chamber. Within seconds, this ceased, and everything sounded — or rather, continued to have no sound — exactly the same as before. I groped around for the notepad and pen I brought and recorded the observations that started to roll in: “gray ponytail,” “thick silence.”
But was I recording them? It was impossible to tell in the unrelenting dark. What if the free hotel pen didn’t work? What if I took reams of interesting notes over the course of three hours, only to discover, when the lights flickered on, that the pen had been dry and recorded nothing? Why do I, a professional journalist, constantly find myself relying on free hotel pens during crucial moments of my assignments? Could I press hard enough with an inkless pen to be able to reveal the indentations of my handwriting after the fact by rubbing over them with crayon? Wasn’t it just my luck that the only pen I had brought was very likely incapable of writing, and that I had idiotically placed myself under conditions where I would be unable to definitively confirm this for three hours?
In more abstract ways, I had prepared rather thoroughly for this assignment, having contacted Dr. Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, the director of the Neuroscience Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, and asked her if becoming aware of my own body sounds would make me go insane. “No,” she said. “Unless you have a predilection for being insane to begin with — which, you know, could be.” That opened up a new avenue of inquiry. I called Dr. Oliver Mason, a researcher of psychotic disorders at the University of Surrey, who has led studies monitoring subjects’ experiences in anechoic chambers. “If you take away all sensory input,” Mason said, “our brains, which are always trying to distinguish signal from noise anyway, simply see signal where there objectively isn’t one.” Even if they have no mental illness, some people are more prone to conjuring phantom signals than others and will do so much more quickly, according to Mason. Most people tolerate short periods of time in lightless anechoic chambers — about 20 minutes, for his experiments — “fine.” Individuals prone to “unusual perceptual experiences” — who think things are happening to them when they’re not — often report experiencing hallucinations within that small window.
He offered to send me a questionnaire to gauge my psychosis-proneness. Some of its questions prompted obvious answers: “Does it often happen that nearly every thought immediately and automatically suggests an enormous number of ideas?” God, no. I wish. “On occasions, have you seen a person’s face in front of you when no one was in fact there?” No — what? Others caused me to wonder whether what I had always assumed to be typical and commonplace life experiences shared across humankind were, in fact, normal: “When in the dark do you often see shapes and forms even though there’s nothing there?” Yes — what? “Have you wondered whether the spirits of the dead can influence the living?” Hasn’t everyone? “Are your thoughts sometimes so strong that you can almost hear them?” Isn’t that just how thoughts work?
Mason reported that my final “yes” score — nine out of 30 — was on the “slightly high side of medium” with “some experiences of a schizotypal nature.” In the chamber, while panicking that my pen had spontaneously become nonfunctional, I recalled the definition of “schizotypal personality disorder” I had looked up online after taking the test. Were these merely the “distorted, superstitious and unusual thoughts” of someone on the slightly high side of medium with some experiences of a schizotypal nature? I wondered. Maybe. But what if maybe not! I switched to a pencil.
Preliminary notes thus recorded (but what if maybe not!), I lay back and imbibed the silence. I had yet to hear the fearsome sound of rushing blood, but my mind had entered a riveting pre-sleep phase, racing through random thoughts and concepts, my attention galloping to keep up. My contemplations reeled to persons who had wronged me, and ways in which I might have revenge — all perfectly legal, of course. At the same time, my brain was delighting me with images of memes I had recently enjoyed, and memories of waiting to be picked up from my elementary school. I thought about things I might say to various celebrities if I ever met them — perfect conversation openers for Margot Robbie and others. The Delta Air Lines customer-service hold music, which I had recently listened to for over an hour, mamboed into my head.
Whoops, I was definitely about to fall asleep and still had not managed to sneak a peep at the awesome and terrible abyss of consciousness revealed when overhearing the odyssey of one’s own blood. I whipped my head back and forth several times to try to make my blood slosh. I detected no liquid movement, but my swishing hair was very loud. Too loud. I fastened it with a clip to quiet it. Wouldn’t it be surprising if this is how I discover I am not a human being, but a bloodless automaton? I wondered. This was probably just the slightly high side of medium with some experiences of a schizotypal nature talking.
Inspired as always by my hair, and to flesh out my contributions to science and to my employer, I determined to gather data about other normally quiet things I might do that would now be loud. You know what was loud? Massaging my scalp. Raising my eyebrows so that my frontalis muscle flexed under the skin of my forehead was, too; my notes report that this action “= loud eye” — the meaning of which sadly has been lost to me. Chomping my teeth produced a resonant sound inside my head, one my husband would have hated if he were there, but he wasn’t, so I repeated the chomp many times to be able to describe it with perfect accuracy. (“Like rapping knuckles on underside of oak table to fake spirit presence during séance.”) The rustling of my paper as I jotted down notes was extremely loud, too. But always, whenever my movements ceased, the silence of the chamber rushed back in, like the tide obliterating a footprint in the sand.
The extent to which the room sounds like nothing is a matter of pride for Orfield, but also a source of agitation. In 2004, Guinness World Records certified the anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories as the quietest place on Earth, with an ambient sound level of –9.4 decibels A-weighted. (“A-weighting” measures frequencies according to audibility for humans; negative decibels correspond to sound levels below typical human hearing.) Eight years later, after the chamber was further sealed up to prevent sound leakage, new tests gave a reading of –13 decibels A-weighted. Guinness reaffirmed its status as Earth’s quietest place.
In between those dates, in 2008, Guinness World Records was sold to the Jim Pattison Group, a Canadian conglomerate that also owns the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! franchise. Under its new management, Guinness World Records began dowsing new revenue streams to supplement its book sales. It’s still possible for an individual to submit evidence of a new world record to the company’s official records-management team. But now, for fees ranging into the tens of thousands of dollars, Guinness World Records also offers clients personalized assistance that can include dreaming up a record to break, organizing help for the attempt, supplying a Guinness World Records official adjudicator to verify the result and corralling media attention to promote it. Today, a representative said, the company makes about as much money from consulting as it does from selling books.
This is where Orfield first suspected everything went wrong for him and his chamber. In 2015, Guinness World Records announced a new record-holder: an anechoic chamber at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash. According to the official Guinness record, tests performed at this location “gave an average background-noise reading of –20.35 dBA” — a level 7.35 decibels quieter than the reading that reconfirmed Orfield Labs’s status in 2012.
Although the bottom of an announcement touting Microsoft’s achievement advertises Guinness’s ability to “raise brand awareness” for corporate clients, a representative for Guinness denied that Microsoft had availed itself of Guinness’s consultancy services for its record attempt.
Nevertheless, according to Orfield, Microsoft’s claim is bunkum. Tommyrot. Poppycock with an average flapdoodle reading of +10 million fiddle faddles. According to him, Microsoft’s measurements were not subject to the same stringent testing parameters as his, and therefore could not be definitively considered an improvement upon his chamber’s 2004 or 2012 figures. Even if they could, he said, Orfield Labs recently achieved what he described as “a legitimate measurement” of “–24.9 dBA,” besting Microsoft anyway. Orfield has filed an application for his chamber to reclaim its title and is currently awaiting a response from Guinness World Records, he said. A representative for Guinness confirmed receipt of Orfield’s newest submission, and that Guinness’s records-management team is in the process of assessing both his evidence and their testing criteria. (Of course, to humans, none of these numbers make any difference. “There is an absolute threshold below which people can’t hear things,” Shinn-Cunningham told me. “If the sound is less than that level, there’s no change in the auditory-nerve response. You’re not going to hear it, because the brain isn’t getting a signal that’s different than what it would get if there were no sound at all.”)
With no reference points, time passed strangely in the chamber — or rather, I was plagued by relentless worries that time might possibly be passing strangely. The panicked idea “What if I’ve only been in here for 15 minutes?” flapped around my consciousness like a trapped moth for hours — and so it is difficult to say at what point this next thing happened. Let’s call it the two-hour mark: I was lying prostrate on the blanket and trying for (let’s call it) the 40,000th time to hear my blood. After a brief period of motionlessness, I detected my heartbeat. I flopped onto my back and, as I did, a bolt of nervous exhilaration shot through me. I had just noticed my first visual hallucination: a sliver of bright light in the darkness. I stared at the sliver for several seconds, waiting for it to mutate into a psychedelic light show, or Satan’s face.
In 1951, Donald Hebb, a professor at McGill University, received a grant from Canada’s Defense Research Board (with the enthusiastic encouragement of the C.I.A.) to study the effects of sensory deprivation in humans. In one experiment, Hebb’s subjects, college students, were led to a small room and instructed to don cotton gloves and cardboard arm sleeves to limit their touch perception, and translucent plastic visors to limit their vision. A U-shaped foam-rubber pillow and the continuous hum of an air-conditioner muffled their hearing. They would be paid $20 a day, they were told, just to lie in bed and do nothing. Few of the students walked away with more than $40 or $60. Many of them said that, after prolonged stints in isolation, they began seeing “images.” The hallucinations tended to manifest first as simple forms like lines or dots of light. Over time, these evolved into more complex patterns, and then detailed scenes. One student reported having observed what a researcher recorded as “a procession of squirrels with sacks over their shoulders marching ‘purposefully’ across the visual field.” While initially amused and interested by the images, researchers noted, the subjects eventually found them disturbing and inescapable.
In Orfield’s chamber, the bright line in my field of vision did not mutate under my gaze — except when I took off my glasses, which made it blurry. Was I hallucinating a common effect of removing spectacles? I put my glasses back on; took them back off; put them back on; took them back off. There was absolutely a 100-percent correlation between no glasses and the line going fuzzy at the edges. Could this be an extremely sophisticated delusion playing off my brain’s expectation of alterations to my field of vision when I remove my glasses? I wondered. No; I had discovered a hairline crack in the wall of insulation, I realized. I had spent several minutes staring in anxious fascination at a beam of office light.
How many things do we misinterpret as out of the ordinary because we are told online that they are? The sole hallucination I had experienced on my journey to the rumored brink of insanity was one manufactured in the brains of other people: a collective fantasy that a room could be made hazardously quiet. In theory, the internet — the most complete repository of human knowledge that has ever existed — would seem a likely tool for efficiently obliterating such incorrect notions. In practice, it functions as a loudspeaker placed at the mouth of a cave: It disseminates noise indiscriminately, and this noise grows increasingly distorted and cacophonous as it bounces off the walls in all directions. We, the audience, know this. Yet we insist on finding news in the noise.
Without warning, the overhead light flashed on, and Michael Role pushed open the door to greet me. I felt embarrassed to be caught sitting alone in the dark, as if Role had not left me in that position three hours earlier. Despite the pleasant sensation I noted as I quit the chamber — my time there had been as sedative as a spa visit, only much more expensive and uncomfortable — I left Minneapolis in a melancholy mood. I had not won up to $7 million. I hadn’t even lost my mind.
Caity Weaver is a staff writer for the magazine. She last wrote a feature about #VanLife. Alec Soth is a photographer in Minneapolis. He has published over 25 books, including “A Pound of Pictures” in 2022. His work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among many others.
Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.