Yasin YR

Embracing Life Without Headphones: A Journey to Awareness and Connection

Until about a month ago, the thought of leaving my flat without my headphones connected to my smartphone filled me with anxiety. Any length of time, whether a two-minute walk to the shop or a two-hour commute, with nothing but my own thoughts and the racket of the city to listen to, was enough to send me into a mild frenzy.

This borderline compulsive relationship with my headphones wasn’t something I was even aware of until earlier this year. My friend, the environmental sound artist Lance Laoyan, noted how headphones not only disconnect us from the reality of noise pollution but also keep us distracted under the guise of helping us to focus. This conversation sent me down a bit of a thought spiral, and I became acutely aware of the ubiquity of headphones in our culture and how little attention we pay to it.

In Manchester, where I live, you’ll be hard-pressed to spot anybody in the city centre not wearing a pair. Cyclists, commuters, runners—everyone. In 2022, according to research by Statista, 30 million of us used headphones, the majority in-ear Bluetooth headphones, such as Apple AirPods. By 2027, it’s predicted half of us will own headphones, the majority aged between 25 and 45. Whether it’s music, a podcast, or an audiobook, many of us choose to tune into anything but the outside world when we’re out and about, but increasingly I’ve begun to question exactly why.

In April, I gave up my headphones for a month in the pursuit of greater awareness of my surroundings and my relationship with my headphones. They were intricately linked to my daily routine—taking the bins out, exercising, washing dishes, writing, eating lunch, trying to sleep. The only time I lived without them was when their battery died. It was never by choice. The anxiety that followed until I was able to charge them should have been enough to tell me that I was, at the very least, habitualized.

The Evolution of Personal Listening Devices

It hasn’t always been like this. Sony released the revolutionary Walkman in 1979, the world’s first personal listening device. It came with lightweight headphones and it seemed miraculous that music was suddenly portable; that you could walk around wrapped up in your own curated soundscape. Headphones are acutely generational, each one more seductive and addictive than the last. Generation X had their Walkman; Millennials their beloved MP3 players and iPods, which digitized the personal listening experience, making it easier still to listen to anything, anywhere, anytime. Generation Z—my generation—has been weaned on the smartphone and streaming services. The draw to listen to anything other than the outside world has never been more powerful.

The invention of the Walkman didn’t just alter how human beings listen to music; it changed how we interacted with our environment, other people, and ourselves. Despite studies showing that headphone use is accelerating hearing loss and causing more road collisions due to people being distracted, nobody seems to be questioning it.

The Human Need for Control

Michael Bull, professor of sound studies at the University of Sussex, conducted some of the first sociological research into the prevalence of headphones. He believes our reliance on them can be explained by one very human motivation: a need for control. This can be broken down into four aspects. The first, cognitive, relates to the ability to control our mood, while the second, the environmental aspect, is concerned with the power to block out displeasurable noises. Then there’s the bodily aspect—which could mean anything from feeling more empowered while walking through a crowd of strangers to being able to focus without the threat of distraction from unpredictable noises. Finally, there’s social control: headphones allow us to block everybody out, unless we choose to let them in.

However, Bull notes, this control is a double-edged sword. While headphone users often describe themselves as being freer, he says, “They are dependent on the machine for that to be true; they’re locked into the economic dynamic of the world and the medium they’re using. That’s a big contradiction: you’re being manipulated, but the manipulation creates a sense of freedom.” This resonated with me. I try to be aware of my relationship with what appears to be pervasive but not actually necessary in our culture. For example, we find that we “need” our smartphones or social media accounts simply because they are so omnipresent, but research consistently suggests that these things aren’t good for us long term. Are headphones any different?

Finding Beauty in the Real World

I see this paradox most clearly in my desire for both cognitive and environmental control, the two of which are heavily interlinked. I often find it disorienting to live in a city. I witness so much horror and I have no choice but to avert my gaze. I walk around Manchester listening to Northern Soul, passing homeless people with a spring in my step, fully engulfed by my own audiotopia. In some ways, it feels necessary. It is difficult to see so much sadness daily while being unable to immediately help. I understand, then, the need to feel in control of my own experience; the sense of freedom that comes with tuning it all out. The same goes for blocking out the noise of industrialization. I can understand the argument that headphones can be used as a tool for personal liberation, something Bull found in his research. But surely, true liberation would be for the outside world to be better suited to our needs (and, of course, the needs of the natural world).

However, we cannot change the things we are not aware of. This is something Laoyan said to me in the conversation which preceded my experiment. I’d never thought before about how our incessant use of headphones, or reluctance to hear the outside world, shields us from reality. He comes at this issue from an environmental perspective. An artist and researcher concerned with the effects of noise pollution on our natural environments, he says: “For me, understanding noise pollution is a way of processing the sorts of environments we have created, are creating, and what impacts they have on an ecological basis. These unwanted sounds can cause spikes in stress hormones in us and in animals and, if exposed for long periods of time, can prove to be destructive.” Wherever there are high levels of noise pollution, he explains, there is a higher risk of mental and physical degradation. To tune it out is simply to accept it, but change requires us to critique it, and to critique requires listening.

Refusing to wear headphones is not just about acknowledging the ugliness of the world, it’s about experiencing its beauty. When we block out the noises of the city which we deem negative, we also block out the noise of the natural world. When I walk through the tree-lined main roads on the way to my gym, I hear the birds singing. They are not drowned out by the traffic, not if you listen out for them, and there is something quite lovely about hearing the city in its totality. Using headphones, particularly to listen to music, explains Bull, is a way to “aestheticize our experience”, to make things seem more beautiful; pleasurable. But there is pleasure in the real world, too. It’s ripe for the taking. Beauty is all around us, we just have to notice it.

Embracing the Present

It’s no secret that gratitude practices fulfill numerous benefits for our mental health. To be grateful for what exists outside our personal possessions; to be grateful for what we have even when we feel that we have nothing, is boundlessly positive. Perhaps what is truly liberating, then, is to accept things as they are, and to know that while a lot of those things are bad, there are plenty that are wonderful. This is what Laoyan calls “taking back control of our ears”, something he encourages. “There is an empowering feeling in being able to experience the places we live in through the tactility and senses that we naturally have,” he says. “As much as new technologies can enhance or augment our human bodies, we cannot hide from the fact that we are intricately entangled with this world.”

And while all of this can feel a little philosophical, and likely requires a shift in perspective beyond simply leaving your headphones at home, I did notice some concrete benefits in my daily life, too. In one of our email chains about the experiment, Laoyan asked me if I’d noticed I had more “natural energy”. I hadn’t thought about it in this way, but he was right. Things I previously found tedious to the point of paralysis, daily chores like doing the dishes or hanging the laundry, became, if not fun, then relaxing.

As neuropsychologist Dr. Amber Johnston explains, music stimulates dopamine and the reward centers in our brain. We live in a dopamine-fueled society, and much of our favorite technology contributes to this. When we use music to get a dopamine hit during otherwise “boring” tasks, we find it more difficult to tolerate boredom. “If people can’t tolerate feeling bored then they are still seeking dopamine to help them soothe their discomfort, and music and headphones might be a way to do that,” she says. “So, actually, practicing spending time in a state of not seeking dopamine, but instead feeling comfortable with boredom will, over time, reduce the amount of additional stimulus that’s needed to get that same dopamine hit.”

Rediscovering Connection

If I wasn’t already aware of the grip headphones have on society, I only had to look at my friends and acquaintances’ confused faces when I told them my plan to abstain. Most of them lamented the horrors of being forced to listen to other people. And look, I get it. There is something empowering about being able to easily ignore people, especially when it comes to unwanted behavior like catcalling. But it also closes us off to genuine interaction. A 2021 study by audio firm Jabra found that UK headphone users wore them for an average of 58 minutes a day, with 38% keeping them on to actively avoid talking to others. Some researchers worry this could be contributing to a culture of disconnection and growing loneliness.

I didn’t start speaking to strangers in the street the moment I stopped wearing headphones, but I did hear snippets of humanity in a way that made me feel more connected. Importantly, I was able to give my loved ones more attention when speaking to them on the phone. I often used headphones as a means to multitask while speaking with people on the phone. I’ll cook my dinner or navigate on Google Maps. When I no longer did this, I noticed that when I spoke to friends and family members, they had my undivided attention.

Finding Balance

Despite this, I am not actively against headphones. They can be a means for focus and productivity, and for those with sensory processing issues, they can prove invaluable. But something magical happened when I chose not to wear them. I began to feel calmer. My thoughts didn’t vanish, but they no longer held as much weight. They would pass by me like cars on the motorway. I learned to exist exactly as I was and appreciate the world for exactly what it is.

A month after my experiment concluded, I still wear them now and then, but they no longer exert the same control over me. Music is just music, not a necessity to get me through boring tasks. Podcasts and audiobooks are forms of entertainment and information, not a means of distraction from my own thoughts. And the sounds of the city are just sounds, not something I need to escape.

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