Medical Examiner

Breathing Lessons

The peculiar pleasure of earplugs.

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I became a connoisseur of earplugs when three brownstones on my block underwent renovations at the same time. Clanging machinery, the truck deliveries, and that most noisy species, construction workers, conspired to disrupt the usual early-morning stillness. After a few mornings lying awake at an unnaturally early hour, pondering the mystery of why construction workers make most of their noise at dawn, I went out and got some foam earplugs and learned how to roll them into a tight cylinder, which I inserted into each ear before going to sleep. They worked. I slept happily right through the noisy hour.

Then one day, upon arising into the quiet post-shouting hour, I left the earplugs in. I went about my morning in the apartment and then ventured outside with the earplugs still in my ears. I could hear people speaking, I could hear sounds, but it all took place at a remove. And yet I did not feel farther away from everything. I moved through the streets as though in a dream, but, as with a dream, somehow more attentive and aware than usual. Up to that point the purpose of earplugs was to keep things out. Now I perceived a new dimension to earplugs—to keep things in.

What things? Thoughts, I guess. Ideas. Equilibrium. Concentrating was easier, and I began to leave the earplugs in to write. Errands in the city, or when I had to take the subway, were much more pleasant at a slight sonic remove. It’s like listening to music on an iPod, but instead of filling your head with sound, you fill it with your thoughts and your own breath.

In Nicholson Baker’s wonderful novel The Mezzanine, which turns the scrutiny of everyday objects into a kind of poetics, he points out that the earplugs at the chain drug store where he shopped were located in the aisle marked, “First Aid.” They sat alongside Ace knee supporters, Caladryl, Li-Ban lice-killing spray, and so forth. “Over the years,” he writes, “I had grown fond of their recherché placement implying, which was often true, that hearing was an affliction, a symptom to be cured.”

I didn’t want to be cured of hearing, I just wanted to be rescued from hearing certain things. I started testing different brands and strengths. All the best earplugs were little foam cylinders—anything waxy or rubber didn’t work well and was unpleasant. They came in varying degrees of decibel-blocking strength, indicated by number. The low end, 26, I found too low. The heavy-duty 33 grade felt like having traffic pylons shoved in my head. Somewhere around 29 to 31 seemed ideal.

Such a small, mundane little object, but what an effect on a day! How, I wondered, did earplugs come into existence?

Like many good ideas, the earplug was something of an accident. It had its origins in a discovery made just 40 years ago, in 1967, by scientist Ross Gardner Jr. His company, National Research, was on a bit of a roll at the time. It had come up with the first commercial process for processing penicillin. It had discovered the first instant coffee and, finally, the first frozen orange juice. At the risk of sounding like the 2000-year-old man with his enthusiasm for Saran Wrap: Frozen Orange Juice! We live in the all-natural era, and I suppose the thrilling gleam of the frozen orange juice invention has dimmed, but in my childhood, frozen orange juice was a big deal. The freezer was always full of it, and it made its way into all sorts of things, mostly desserts, like a secret, extra-special ingredient.

Gardener and his team discovered earplugs as a byproduct of a project called “joint sealants.” Gardener was developing a resin that had unusual properties of energy absorption. This material, by coincidence, was abbreviated to E-A-R.

It took a while for Ross to start thinking about E-A-R in terms of ears. Then he began talking to Curt Holmer, a young acoustic consultant, about the idea of a soft barrier to sound, a kind of molecular shock absorber. A foam earplug would be soft, he and Holmer thought. But it would also be porous, and that seemed counterintuitive for blocking big noises.

Still, Gardner devised a test, cajoling an audience into putting foam cylinders into their ears. Gardener spoke to them and ascertained that they could hear him. Then he took a hammer and started pounding a plate of steel. He asked if the group could hear anything. His account of the answer has the slight stiffness of someone suppressing great excitement. “While still pounding the plate, I asked them to take out their earplugs,” he wrote in a paper co-authored with a colleague, Elliott Berger. “Not suspecting how much noise the plugs were blocking they complied, and then no longer being protected from the fearsome racket were quickly driven from their seats.”

A product was born. Earplugs are currently manufactured by 24 different companies and can be bought on nearly every continent. The leading manufacturer, Howard Leight Industries, reports annual sales of $120 million. Gardner has since died, but Elliott Berger is still in the earplug business, working for E-A-R/Aearo Technologies, the company into which National Research evolved. He is a kind of acoustical eminence, and when I spoke to him, I noted a certain fastidiousness in the way he talked about his ears. He agreed with me that earplugs were useful in many situations beyond ones in which the noise was extremely loud. He uses them at concerts where the volume is uncomfortable. Even at movies! He spoke of his ears with a deep appreciation, as though they were fragile, delicate gateways to the world of auditory delights.

I wore earplugs well past the moment when the renovations on my block were finished. Eventually, though, this became too jarring on a daily basis. When you go through your day with earplugs it feels a bit like you are in an air-traffic control tower, watching the landings and take-offs off around you. This is great as a novelty, but not as a routine. I stopped using earplugs regularly.

But I return to them now and then, and they never fail to provide a thrill. There’s the pleasure of calming the world around you to the point where you can hear your own thoughts. And then there is the real treat to wearing earplugs: The moment when you have arrived at your destination—a quiet desk, a park, or maybe home, where a loved one waits—and you take them out, and the whole world comes rushing delightfully in, bright and somehow new.