A new article in Atlas Obscura delves into the mystery of what some have called “prairie madness,” a phenomenon that seemed to plague American settlers in the mid-19th to early-20th centuries as they moved west and settled on the Great Plains. according to James GainesDuring that time period:
Stories began to emerge of formerly sedentary people becoming depressed, anxious, nervous, even violent with their “wild madness.” There is some evidence in historical accounts or surveys that Suggest an increase in cases of mental illness From the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, particularly on the Great Plains. An alarming amount of madness is taking place in the new prairie states [sic] between farmers and their wives,” journalist Eugene Smalley wrote in Atlantic Ocean in 1893.
What is the reason for this phenomenon? It’s hard to say, but there are several theories. James Gaines continues:
Fictional and historical accounts of this time and place often blame the “wild madness” for the isolation and bleak conditions the settlers faced. But many also mentioned something unexpected: the sounds of the prairie. During winter, Smalley wrote, “the silence of death falls upon the vast landscape.” One of the characters in the story of the Manitoba settlement, Nellie McClung, “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.”
This acoustic theory has new research to back it up. State University of New York-Oswego, paleoanthropologist Alex de Velez, recently published a paper describing his new research, which entailed collecting and analyzing audio recordings from the plains in Nebraska and Kansas and from cities such as Barcelona and Mexico City. He analyzed the recordings, mapping the range of sound frequencies that the human ear can record. He found that acoustic cityscapes are more diverse and act on the human ear like white noise. However, prairie sounds lack that kind of white noise effect. Because there is no background noise when an act You hear noises in the prairie, it stands out more, and is more likely to cause disturbance and exacerbation. James Gaines explains that Velez’s research led him to conclude that:
The frightening soundscape—the silence and gale-force winds—could have actually contributed to the mental illness of the settlers. It’s not a huge leap: research into recent topics has shown that what we hear can happen It not only exacerbates sleep, stress, and mental health problems, but also exacerbates cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes..
There is no way to know if Velez is right. Some experts warn that modern audio recordings from the plains cannot capture what it might have sounded like in the 19th century when the sounds of wolves and bison were more prevalent, and when there were sounds of insects living in the walls of settler homes in ways, they don’t now . Others point out that it is very difficult to study how mental illness might have occurred in a population that lived more than a century ago, especially given the different social roles and norms. Gaines explains:
It can be impossible to quantify how much any episode of irritability or depression came from the sound scene and how much it was a reaction to stress or isolation, which can be particularly distressing. 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.
Even with all these caveats, it’s a really interesting premise that resonates deeply. I am a very sensitive person to noise. I can’t sleep in a silent house – I hear every car that goes by, every hum every time the fridge or air conditioner is turned on, and every whine my dog makes if he’s having a bad dream. I drowned out the silence and noise that broke the silence by turning on white noise into the earbuds. I also have a fan in my bedroom that blows loudly all night. I’ve always said the thing I dread the most about the zombie apocalypse is not having electricity to charge my phone and therefore not being able to use my white noise app at night. I’m going to die not because zombies tore my body while trying to eat me, but because of sleep deprivation. And I’m going crazy slowly in the meantime. So, yes, the Velez hypothesis seems perfectly plausible to me.
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