Take a moment and think about the quietest room you’ve ever laid down in; the quietest, stillest place you’ve ever been. No matter how peaceful, how serene, there was still some sound: the rush of water in pipes, the hum of electricity in the walls, the breeze gently blowing, insects chirping; the ambient noise of nature, of life.
If you take a 15-minute car ride from downtown Minneapolis, you’ll find a nondescript concrete building with ivy climbing its exterior walls. Orfield Laboratories sits a block away from a bowling alley called Memory Lanes and directly across the street from Skol Liquors. Inside Orfield Laboratories is an anechoic chamber that has been certified by Guinness as the quietest place in the world.
That still bedroom you were in? The ambient noise was probably about 30 dBA, or A-weighted decibels — the relative loudness of sound perceived by the human ear. This is a logarithmic scale, so every 10 dBA, you’re either doubling or halving the loudness or quietness. At zero dBA, the human ear can no longer perceive sound. The anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories was certified by Guinness at -9.4 dBA in 2004 and -13 dBA in 2013, both for one hour measurements. But over shorter periods, they’ve conducted tests on the chamber that have given readings of up to between negative 22 and negative 23 dBA.
That’s just in terms of what instruments can read in the room. The human ear has no way of telling that difference in sound (or lack thereof). If a room or chamber is 0 dBA or lower, you won’t hear anything. Nothing at all. The difference between -9.4 dBA and -23 dBA sounds the same to our pitiful flesh-ears. But it made a difference to me. I wanted to be in the quietest room on Earth.
A handful of years ago, I read about Orfield Laboratories and the quiet room in an in-flight magazine. Ever since, I’ve been mildly obsessed with being able to go into that room. Finally, last week, I was given the chance.
Perhaps it’s because my mind moves so quickly, all the time, that I’m so fascinated by stillness; by the concept of perfect quiet. I get songs stuck in my head pretty much constantly; my brain often won’t let me get to sleep, or wakes me up at all hours screaming that something is happening, or that I’ve forgotten something. I talk all the time; I feel a need to have auditory stimulus constantly. If I’m watching a movie and have to go into the other room, I’ll pause the movie and then start a podcast on my phone. I admit; it’s a problem.
So the room beckoned to me. I wanted to experience perfect silence. I needed it to happen at some point in my life. And I needed to know why it existed, and what Orfield Labs studies, and for what purpose. Steven Orfield, head of the facility, was nice enough to sit down with me and explain the function of their labs, and the story is even more fascinating than I’d hoped.