The adaptive ability of life is a constant marvel. It accounts for the proliferation of all manner of species in every conceivable environment on Earth, provides countless fascinating anecdotes (like the fact that a hummingbird’s tongue goes all the way around the back of the skull before coming out of its mouth) and is – for me at any rate – a source of mystery: is life a response to or a product of an environment? But that’s another story. In any case, as human life-forms, we also enjoy the capacity to adapt to changing, challenging circumstances. There is a definitively positive aspect to it, to the extent that it can provide hope in new and difficult stages (perhaps a stressful job, the aftermath of a long relationship or moving house). However bad things are, there is always the potential to adapt and learn to manage the situation: “humans can get used to anything” (Life of Pi).
When visiting London recently, and coasting a roller to all four corners of the huge city, a quiet ‘and yet’ emerged. First of all, the adaptive ability of lifeforms by definition means you can encounter a broad variety of circumstances and be OK. You will be able to apprehend their characteristics, make judgements on their meaning (or value, valence, implications etc.) and theoretically do something about it if necessary, even if that just means reflecting on it objectively. And yet, it may be difficult to evaluate some circumstances using basic yet powerful conceptual dichotomies, like good and bad. In other words, their meaning is obscure, nuanced, or hard to define. Alternatively, in a specific example I will introduce below, the circumstances in which you find yourself embroiled – sometimes unaccountably – show up funny to your current systems of judgement. They appear to your individual consciousness as difficult to manage, emotionally charged or psychologically complex, with different facets, each with their own effects, not all of them at all pleasant. Processing these circumstantial fingerprints uses a lot of energy, and leaves us less time and resources to tend to ourselves, our human relationships; perhaps the more static aspects of life, in contrast to the flickering flame of experience.
Sometimes, however, it seems the response to that set of circumstances (…that state of mind?) is not to apprehend, not really to adapt, but to conceal, to censor. It may seem easier or less threatening and disruptive than unpacking and dealing with, or even allowing ourselves to become conscious of, things. Whilst easy in the short term, it sews the seeds of trouble in the medium to long term. I have a hunch that a good deal of the circumstances we think of as difficult and frightening to deal with are nothing of the sort. They only appear so because they are ignored, and thus left to grow tentacles in the dark. But for now let’s dive into the example.
I believe that for those living in London, and presumably all hectic, urban environments, not adapting, becoming unconscious, is a part of everyday life. This is less attributable to my previous point about taking the easier path of ignorance, and more due to the enormous quantity and intensity of stimuli. Commuting, especially, seems to be a painful, and shockingly noisy institution. The sound of the carriages hurtling through tunnels deep underground generates a clattering screech that easily exceeds 100 decibels. In fact there are ten journeys in Central London all of which exceed 105 dB, according to research conducted by the BBC and Dr Joe Sollini from UCL’s Ear Institute. Given that sufficient exposure to sounds above 85 dB are harmful to the human ear, these facts are quite worrying. Incidentally it is worth noting that decibels do not increase uniformly: one sound that is 10 dB louder than another is perceived as being twice as loud.
This time as a visitor to London, I found the noise of the tube almost frightening, and this was compounded further by the weirdness of the tube in the first place. Similar to the weirdness of flying, if you actually make yourself conscious of the situation you are in when riding the tube, you are guaranteed a strange feeling of modern dysphoria and/or alienation: ‘what the hell is going on, I’m being squeezed body-to-body with silent strangers in a metal tube that’s buried up to 60 meters underground, travelling up to 60mph, and no-one’s freaking out?!’.
But no, nobody’s freaking out, because they’re all used to it. I used to be used to it! Quite apart from the fact that virtually everyone on the tube has headphones in (which does virtually nothing to drown out the tube’s own music) and/or is looking at their phones with distracted indifference, they have all adapted to the situation of squeezing onto a horribly loud tube carriage. The point I am making here, however, is that the truth of this fact does not mean that the circumstances aren’t still having an effect on people. Quite the opposite: people just become unaware of the impact that the demanding circumstances have. What impact is this? you might ask. Well there is the physiological damage to hearing done by very loud noises overtime, and whilst it is possible to argue – as TfL of course do – that the duration of exposure to the loudest tube journeys is not sufficient to cause such damage, it would be very surprising if 40 minutes’ worth of 105+ dB five days a week didn’t have some longterm effect.
Then there is the psychological impact, which I deem to be of much greater importance. Sounds create environments: this is why we love music so much. You can actually adapt your circumstances by controlling the noises within it, and thus your state of mind, or the way in which that environment is perceived. The silence of a church, the background piano jazz of a fancy restaurant and the soundtrack of any film are all great examples of this.
So what happens when we go into an environment that is not only hot, compact, alienating, and stressful, but is also extremely loud? It seems to me that these factors are very threatening to the individual, and that the headphones and blank screen stares are a way, not of adapting to them, as we will soon see, but of blocking them all out. Perhaps by doing this we are able to give ourselves a sense of control over the situation, of creating a little private space of safety within a broader scene of loudness etc.
Unfortunately for us, however, this sense of control is an illusion. Unless you have noise-cancelling headphones, or failing that, music that is louder than the noise of the tube (good luck finding this, I’ve tried some pretty heavy stuff), you are completely immersed in the tube’s screaming. Ignoring a problem is not at all a way to control it, nor is it a solution, and there is plenty of reason to believe it makes the problem worse. But this is not a criticism of commuters, it is in sympathy with them. They are not trying to ignore the tube scream out of some abstract immaturity or an inability to deal with things, but because the problem is random and not immediately soluble. This simply means that the go to adaptive mechanism is becoming unconscious to a degree: in fact not to adapt to it, but to ignore it.
You have to detach from what your body is telling you, to shut out the world around you in order to preserve enough energy to maintain the fast-paced city routine. It seems to me that the result of all this is that at first we become unaware of the effects of the tube scream, and then as we begin to notice the signs of stress, anxiety, impatience and fatigue, we find that their causes are obscured. Not necessarily unknown to us, perhaps, but obfuscated by the act of blocking it all out. I do mean ‘it all’, because clearly the loudness of the tube is not the only thing that causes urban dis-ease. In an environment where the individual is constantly being bombarded by innumerable and demanding stimuli like overcrowded streets, bright, invasive advertisements, high prices and infinite opportunities to spend and so on, you cannot afford to process it all. And this in itself is worrying. To deal with any issue, be it stress or otherwise, it is vital to be fully conscious of its causes – or at least its contributory factors, so that some solution can be worked out.
Nevertheless, herein lies what I believe to be the solution: becoming conscious, becoming aware. In other words, to stop fighting the stimuli off and let them run through your system without getting overly concerned with them, without investing in them the power that they want to exert over you. I found I was trying to hide from the sound of the tube in my tinny little headphones, playing some mellow acoustic music, and it just wasn’t working. So instead I stood by the window where all the air rushes through, took out my headphones, closed my eyes and let myself go into the screeching, grinding roar of tortured metal. What an experience! By putting aside my idea of what the situation should have been like (restful, quiet journey on the train) and committing to what it actually was like (loud, immersive, intense, bizarre) I was able to alter the effect that the phenomenon had on me. It went from being stressful and intense to just intense.