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Chasing Life

Did you know that some people can taste colors and others have a hard time recognizing faces? This season on Chasing Life, Dr. Sanjay Gupta takes listeners beyond the basics of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch to explore unique sensory experiences. Discover why psychedelics might change your worldview, how animals perceive differently than humans, and how biases in taste might impact the future of food production.

Join us each week to marvel at how the rich landscape of sensory perception shapes our understanding of the world.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta

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Finding Your Quiet Space
Chasing Life
Oct 11, 2022

We’re constantly assaulted by “noise” all around us: crowds, vehicles, social media. As quiet spaces around us dwindle, what is it doing to our minds and bodies? Why do we need silence for our health? Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton takes Dr. Sanjay Gupta on a tour to one of the quietest spots in the United States. Plus, quiet activist Vikram Chauhan gives listeners tips on finding quiet even in the noisiest cities.

Episode Transcript
Gordon Hempton
I'm speaking to you from Seattle, Washington, in the quiet of my studio. But in the view of the ferry crossing Elliot Bay, and the water that no doubt is lapping the shore and the leaves that are bending in their late summer tunes.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
That's Gordon Hampton. He's an acoustic ecologist. He travels the world recording and documenting the sounds of nature. He calls himself the soundtracker.
Gordon Hempton
Each place has a feeling. It's almost as if the place has a spirit. It's full of presence. Each place has a combination of sounds that's as clear as a signature.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
One of the soundscapes he'll always remember is Yosemite National Park in the middle of the night.
Gordon Hempton
It was winter. There was snow on the ground. It was really cold at a place called Soda Springs. And standing there in the cold temperatures and the perfect crisp stillness of night and the the light from the stars alone was bright enough to reflect off of the snow banks. I couldn't hear anything but the silence. And then I laid down. And this is what I heard. [sound of soda springs water] And it pretty much sounds to my ears like a mariachi band made up of a bunch of brass instruments. And it's just so rhythmic and so incredible. I think that unlocks a special connection that we all have. This is our home. Earth. We really did evolve here. And so when we experience beauty. It's more than just beauty. We experience a homecoming.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
For Gordon, listening to the quiet of nature isn't just a job. It's a way of life, a way of being. And he believes that we would all do well to be more attuned to the silence.
Gordon Hempton
True listening has sometimes been called worship. You simply make yourself available to everything around you. And notice that when you're quiet, you feel more clearly.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Traffic. Airplanes. Email notifications. Let's face it. We live pretty noisy lives. It's everywhere around us. Inescapable, sometimes overwhelming. But it doesn't have to be this way. In this episode, we'll take a look at our sense of hearing what happens when we forget what it truly means to listen. We'll talk to Gordon Hampton, as well as fellow quiet activist Vikram Chauhan. They'll take us on a tour of the quiet spaces around us and teach us how to tune out the noise and reconnect with the silence within ourselves. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's Chief Medical Correspondent. Open your ears. It's time to start chasing life.
Gordon Hempton
So sound is information. And if I were to drop a pen on my desktop here, you'd recognize it as probably a pen, even though you couldn't see it. You can just tell by the sound signature.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
For our ancestors, sound helped us survive. Like if you heard a babbling brook, it would direct you to drinking water.
Gordon Hempton
Well, the same is true whether a soft paw cracks a twig at a distance of 20 feet while you're sleeping. Your brain wakes you up, and then you gather more information by looking in the direction in which the sound came. If it's still interest you. You have the option to get closer. Increase the resolution. You can perhaps smell that there was a presence of a cat, for example, that was curious about your campsite. You might touch the ground, feel that it was warm there, and the cat lingered. You could even taste something if you discovered a berry. This is called sensory data acquisition. And in the natural scheme of things, in our distant evolutionary past, that scheme kicks off almost always by sound.
Speaker 2
How did this start for you? Acoustic ecology. You know, I hadn't even heard of this before.
Gordon Hempton
In fact, when I started, there was no label acoustic ecology. I didn't intend on becoming the soundtracker. Actually, I didn't even know who I was. And then this one thunderstorm just transformed me. And I decided, well, the problem with me listening at that time was that I was only listening to what I thought was important and everything else was filtered out. So I needed to bypass my brain. I bought a microphone at a time that I didn't even know. There were choices between microphones. And I held that microphone and my brain said, I want to hear everything that microphone hears. And all of a sudden, the world was revealed to me.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
It is such an interesting way of life in this idea that in order to really listen, sometimes you have to bypass your brain, as you say. Is it silence that we're talking about here? Is it is it lack of noise? How do you think about it?
Gordon Hempton
Well, certainly silence. And we can answer that question right now. Okay. So we're going to just be quiet for a moment. Let's just take a deep breath. Notice how good it feels. It feels good to both breathe in. And it feels good to breathe out. Now don't listen for sound. Let's just listen to the place where we are. Let's just take it all in. Notice how you feel. I feel the presence. There is something. The silence is presence. And you by being quiet, are becoming aware, the presence of everything. The only thing that's absent is us, our noise.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
It's it's interesting, Gordon. For me, it. I've not done that before. And even as you as you said.
Gordon Hempton
What haven't you done before? What haven't you?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
I haven't. I haven't shut up I guess. I'm always talking. It's weird, though. I mean, I'm just. When you said we're just going to be silent for a little bit, it's. I got to tell you, my my my heart started racing a little bit. And I know that's my issue. I'm not I'm not saying it's a good thing. And what I'm saying is that I think there's such a desire sometimes to fill the silence.
Gordon Hempton
Oh, absolutely. I think now that we've live these super compressed lives, that to take our attention away from that something else and bring it into the present moment. It is very odd at first, but. That is exactly how we evolved and were meant to be. And if you sustain that present moment awareness, you'll find that your body not only becomes healthier, blood, better, oxygenated, breath, deeper and slower. You know, your cortisol levels drop all these things you already know. You become healthier. But the sense of well-being increases as your mind clarifies. And those 20, 30 things on your to do list that were urgent matters, you then get to gaze calmly back, and look at this is what happens to me. I look at a half of them and I thought, Why did I ever think this was important enough to do? And I just scratched them off my list. The power of quiet, I can't tell you, is so important that it's worth practicing several times a day.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
You do have this organization called One Square Inch of Silence. What does that refer to specifically?
Gordon Hempton
It refers to a location up the Hoe river rain forest, an Olympic national park in the northwestern corner of Washington State. It is visually a fairyland, with trees as large as columns in a cathedral with drapes of moss. And at one time, you know, it was pretty much unbroken quietude. If we were just to be quiet in our studios, our decibel meter would probably drop down to oh 35, but there with no walls. The decibel level is about 25, the lowest has been below 20. Okay, so yet you can still hear what John Muir describes as the faintest sound audible to the human ear, which is the falling of a sequoia seed on thinly crusted snow. When you arrive at one square inch and nobody ever talks there, of course, but you're just there. And whether you're there alone or there with others, it's so spacious and so timeless. That people often weep. Because the question that hits you is, why did you wait so long for something which is a basic need, a necessity, not a luxury?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
We'll be back in a moment.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
And now back to Chasing Life. Gordon talked about the importance of quiet spaces, but the question is how do we really find them? For example, I live in Atlanta. It's a pretty busy city and I'm not alone. The U.N. estimates that roughly 50% of the entire world live in urban spaces. That's roughly four and a half billion people.
Vikram Chauhan
If you go to a city, you can actually feel the energy of that city. Sometimes it's it's so hyper, you know, the outside noise, the inside noise, the people are noisy. And you just if you're sensitive to that, you want to just go to a quiet place and just calm down and relax.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
That's Vikram Chauhan. He co-founded a nonprofit called Quiet Parks International with Gordon Hampton. Its mission? To save quiet.
Vikram Chauhan
There were many organizations talking about noise and anti noise, but quite is a different value altogether. In fact, I would say that. Auditory noise is not the opposite of quiet. And that's why we are called Quiet Parks International and not Noise Free Parks International because we need to have conversations about what we want, which is quiet.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Quiet Parks International identifies these spaces all over the world where you can find pure, natural, quiet. You can even nominate areas like trails or forests that give you peace. When you nominate a place, something really interesting happens. Quiet Parks will send a team to monitor the noise levels at the location. So, for example, places in the wild are considered quiet if there's no noise pollution. But if you live in an urban area, that would be considered quiet if you can hear things like your own footsteps or bird singing, or be able to talk and listen in whispers while in the area. Right now, these parks are found all over the world in Taipei, London, Barcelona, Stockholm. I have to be honest, as someone who lives in a city, any place with natural quiet sometimes feels strange to me because I'm just not used to it. Vikram defines natural quiet not as a complete absence of sound, but as a lack of noise. And noise is defined as anything that is manmade.
Vikram Chauhan
You know, lawnmowers, the sound of motorcycles, the sound of aircraft, the sound of drilling, the sound of gunshots, the sound that if you're in an apartment, be it air conditioning, fans, refrigerator, all of this constitute manmade noise pollution.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Vikram recently moved away from Mumbai. So for him, it's much easier to find these quiet spaces. But what about people who still live in a noisy place? His first tip is simple: make it intentional.
Vikram Chauhan
I make a commitment to quiet with myself. I said, I'm going to send the intention that today I'm going to experience quiet.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
It sounds simple, but choosing to be in quiet is harder than you think, especially with all the distractions around us. Tip number two: Find the space.
Vikram Chauhan
It needn't be too complex. Go to the nearest park. Look at trees outside your window if you can't go out. If you have a plant, just look at that. Just move from your mind. Open your senses. And this way, your energy, which is being largely in your mind, will come into your body and you'll start relaxing your body and you will feel that calm within.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
You can also use the Internet to access these spaces. Use what's available to you. Go to YouTube, Spotify, or even the Quiet Parks website and find natural soundscape recordings. Tip number three may sound counterintuitive, but look to technology. You can use noise canceling headphones.
Vikram Chauhan
People are now realize the importance of outer quiet and how to quiet helps them to feel inner quiet. They're a lot of products right now which are incorporating that as a feature. For example, we have noise canceling headphones, we have electric vehicles, we have aircrafts noise free engines, which are also sustainable.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Like Vikram says, it doesn't need to be complicated. When I spoke with Gordon, he and I listened to the quiet. In my job, I usually do the opposite of that. I'm not going to lie. At first, I sort of panicked at the thought of silence. When you're on air, that's the last thing you want to hear. But after some time with that quiet, I felt my body relax. I felt my mind relax. When we talk about the senses, we're usually thinking about how to make them stronger or better. But as it turns out, silencing them once in a while can also be good for us. After all, remember this quiet is the natural state of the world.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Before we go, I want to leave you with a listening exercise led by Gordon Hempton. Gordon told me he does this three or four times a day, and I've been trying to follow his lead. And I got to tell you, it's incredible how much a few minutes of quiet helps me feel centered and at peace. So wherever you are right now, you don't have to go anywhere. Just find a comfortable spot. Open your ears and listen.
Gordon Hempton
Let's just stay in the quiet for a moment. Just acknowledge that you deserve these few minutes all to yourself. If you have any devices close by, turn them off. Put them on airplane mode, whatever you need to do so you know you won't be disturbed. And this is a time where you can enjoy your privacy. Now, notice what is the furthest sound that you can hear? All right. Give it time. And as new information comes in, you'll notice how the distance begins to expand. But eventually it hits a limit. Let's give it more time. This is the area of your awareness and defines the auditory horizon. But now let's listen for the faintest sound you can hear. And it's often quite close. If you're outdoors, maybe it's the hum of insect wings. If you're indoors, maybe the home ventilation. What is the faintest sound you can hear? And now, just listen to the whole place at once. Your ears know what to do. Just let the sounds in. Just let the sounds in and listen to the place itself. Notice how you feel. There is no difference between quiet and awareness. So when we ask ourselves, what is the true benefit of quiet? It's much easier to answer if we ask ourselves, what's the benefit of being aware? And best yet, just feel it.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
I'd love to hear your thoughts on the quiet spaces in your life and how that's impacted you. Record your thoughts as a voice memo and email them to or give us a call 470-396-0832 and leave a message. We might even include them on an upcoming episode of the podcast. We'll be back next Tuesday with an episode about the sense that we all want to feel less of - pain. Thanks for listening.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Chasing Life is a production of CNN Audio. Megan Marcus is our executive producer. Our podcast is produced by Emily Liu, Andrea Kane, Anne Lagamayo, Rafa Farihah, Xavier Lopez, Grace Walker and Eden Getachew. Tommy Barzarian is our engineer and a special thanks to Ben Tinker, Amanda Sealey and Nadia Kounang of CNN Health, as well as Rafeena Ahmad from CNN Audio.