A Chamber of One’s Own

A Chamber of One’s Own

A Chamber of One’s Own 1920 1222 Marissa Castrigno

In the quietest room on earth, they say you can hear your own lungs. They say you can hear your blood moving inside your body—as if the whole room were a seashell against your ear. Your stomach squelches become symphonic. After half an hour, you may start to hallucinate. The longest anyone has stayed in the room is fifty-five minutes. I first heard of this via some passing link with “World’s Quietest Room” in the headline and thought immediately, “How can I go there?”

I can’t. The room is an anechoic chamber at Microsoft headquarters in Washington State. It is a room inside a room, a chamber that sits atop vibration-dampening springs. The room absorbs the reverberation of all sound so there’s absolutely no echo; most humans have never heard a sound with no echo. The room’s walls have six layers of concrete and steel. One enters through a series of vault-like doors and finds fiberglass acoustic wedges blanketing all surfaces—each wedge over three feet long. The floor is a wire trampoline suspended over a valley of more spikey fiberglass. The ceiling is fiberglass stalactites. It looks squishy, like the padded cell of an insane asylum, or maybe a fun house. Most children would be tempted to run full force into the wall, expecting to bounce back after impact. Not me: I would’ve relished the quiet, so short in supply then. I would’ve wandered the room, touching the fiberglass wedges gently like an examination.


I watch a video where a young English man sits in an anechoic chamber, his eyes glowing yellow in the night vision footage. The man wants to set the world record for the longest time spent inside this type of chamber, and so must be continuously recorded. This room is not as quiet as the chamber at Microsoft or even Minneapolis’ Orfield Labs, but it’s still anechoic at 15.4 dbA. To set an official record the young man must be inside alone, with the lights off, and can only speak for one minute out of every five. At thirty minutes, he starts to hear a distant train (it’s his blood moving through his head). After almost fifty minutes, he can no longer do the simple math to calculate when he’s permitted to talk. His stopwatch is still running but his brain just isn’t working, he says. At one hour, he sees a flame shooting out of the tiny camera light; he’s playing a game with himself where he’s seeing things he knows aren’t there, but he still looks at them anyway—“I’m just gonna keep playing the game.” He lasts eighty-six minutes, and when the technicians turn the lights back on, he looks around, blinking, and says, “Wow, that is so much bigger than I thought this room was.”

Aside from chummy lads who want to be Guinness record-holders, the chambers are used to test electronic products like pacemakers, cell phones, and even engines. Warehouse-sized anechoic chambers can hold fighter jets and other massive machinery, to test operational radar. When you change the brightness on your phone, or plug it in, that energy exchange makes a certain amount of noise. The chamber’s task is always to minimize a sound’s path, strip away the excess reverberation so manufacturers can discern what is necessary or functional. I am far less interested in the chamber’s practical uses than the psychological experience it offers.


In my childhood home there was a crawlspace under the kitchen; it was about thirty inches high and maybe fifty or sixty square feet. As tweens, my friends and I spent hours in there; we, unfortunately, called it “The Crib.” When an adult would summon us—for pizza, for a parent picking up—it was like a clown car: five, ten, fifteen pudgy bodies emerged from the swinging door (the top of which hit roughly above my dad’s knee).

Inside, a single lightbulb with a pull chain illuminated bare sheetrock walls and pale blue carpeting. We usually left it off; with the door closed, it was pitch black inside. I spent most of middle school in there with my friends, usually in the dark, lying on my back or attempting the contortionist feat of sitting cross-legged in skinny jeans. There were little piles of colorful chalk against the walls, which we used to write and draw on them. It was an ever-evolving graffiti illustrating our progress through adolescence; I hadn’t had many friends before The Crib’s era, and the closer I grew to other children, the further I was able to move away from my unhappy parents.


Before the chamber at Microsoft held the title, the world’s quietest room was the anechoic chamber at Orfield Labs, in Minneapolis. When it set the record in 2004, Orfield’s chamber measured -9.4 dBA. (The threshold for human hearing is 0 dBA.) Just over a decade later, Microsoft set the new world record at -20.1 dBA.

Some perspective: what we most often hear as “quiet” is about 30dB—in a library, an empty movie theatre, the inside of a parked car. We use the sound around us to orient ourselves, including our balance. What does it mean, then, to have negative sound? In an anechoic chamber, our bodies cease to understand where we are situated in space. We become disoriented. They say the only way to stay inside one for an extended period of time is to sit down, preferably in the dark.

The abbreviation “dB” stands for decibel, the measure of a sound’s volume. It has something to do with wavelength, those mysterious undulations. The “A” in dBA indicates that the value is weighted (using “math”) to signify not just the sound’s pure volume, but rather the human ear’s perception of the sound’s volume. So dB is the sound itself and dBA is how we hear it—I think. What you should glean is that Microsoft’s anechoic chamber is really fucking quiet, more silent than anything our civilian brains can comprehend.

“To give you a rough idea,” says Hundraj Gopal, a Principal Human Factors Engineer at Microsoft, “the Brownian Motion, that is a random air particle in space, is around -23 dBA. You can’t get any quieter because that’s just the air particles moving.” Their anechoic chamber is less than a whisper away from the sound of air.


Years later I realized that, from the kitchen, my mother could hear nearly everything happening in The Crib: the jokes we made; the crushes we confided; our shit-talk; our self-conscious questions; our cheers for two people to kiss. It was a trick, the way sound traveled. Our voices bellowed up through the floor, but strangely, from inside the crawlspace, we could barely hear my mother’s muffled voice calling down to us. To be fair, when we were packed in there we were often shrieking and screaming. Plenty, though, was said in low tones, and those things I am sure remain secret now, even to us, in our distant and fallible memories.

The opposite of an anechoic chamber is a reverb room, where curved metal sheets on the concrete walls refract sound like a bouncing Flubber, the sentient green goo from the 1997 film. Another trick of sound in my childhood home: an old metal air duct acted like a public address system, projecting whatever conversation was being had in the kitchen up into my bedroom. Even when my parents would tighten their anger into low tones, I could hear their fights with a tinny clarity—arguments often about me. (“The dishwasher is still full…” my father once said, “we agreed on her chores, why haven’t you made her do anything?”) Sometimes the duct served as a tornado siren. If the tone of my father’s voice became strained during an argument, like a countdown I knew his heavy, hurried footsteps on the stairs would soon follow. It wasn’t the sound of his actual feet that told me whether he was angry, but the quality of the creaking from our old pine staircase as he ascended. He was six-foot-three and well over two hundred pounds. Lower pitches meant he was going to his office or bedroom, at ease. The higher pitches came after a fight downstairs, and meant the speed of the air particles in my room was about to change.


An app called dB Meter tells me that, right now, my apartment in suburban Wilmington, North Carolina, on a still night, measures 30dB. It’s quiet enough that I can hear when a cockroach the size of a Milano cookie scuttles across the floor. It’s a brushing sound, like a pencil running across paper. When I first moved to the South I would see them and gasp, lunging for the nearest murder weapon. Now, three years later, when I hear the faint, familiar scratching, I’ll glance around my desk and, if nothing crawls in view, lift my feet and continue working. Sometimes my cat will tap at them with one paw and watch, mesmerized by their frantic and hopeless attempt to outrun her.

I read and write in this perceived silence, but it’s too quiet for me to sleep; I turn on a fan that brings my bedroom to 35dB. I try to imagine a room that’s more than four times quieter. For two hundred-fifty dollars, I could tour the chamber at Orfield Labs with one other person. For six hundred dollars, I could have the room to myself for an hour. The lab will make an official record of my time spent inside the chamber—a challenge. I bet I could do it, but I don’t want to try. I’m not interested in the achievement of breaking a record, or documenting how extreme, prolonged silence might test my grasp on reality—“keep playing the game.” All I want is a few minutes in the room alone. I fantasize about the quiet. What would it feel like, to be that safe?


My father is a calmer man now, in part because he and my mother have divorced. After they split, right around my twenty-first birthday, my mother ascribed me his role—adversary—and the house remained pressurized for years. Their legacy.

I wonder if it would be easier to stay in an anechoic chamber with the lights on versus off. Some find the room claustrophobic; a cellist who has played there suspects this is because “in a normal room, there’s reverb. To your ear, that means there’s a lot of space. But there’s none of that in here.”

I imagine the anechoic chamber like being home alone as a teenager, which happened often. I was an only child in a three-story, seven-bedroom Victorian, making my Sims “woohoo” or instant messaging between stretches of homework. My dad worked at least sixty hours a week and my mom was an on-and-off freelancer. She spent my junior year with my grandfather while he died of cancer. Some afternoons the only sounds I heard in the house were the house itself. A creak. The air clicking on. Occasionally one of our cats would slip through my bedroom door—a quick, high squeak from the hinge followed by a big-bellied purr. I don’t remember if I felt lonely all those days and weeks, but I did feel peaceful.

Living in Brooklyn in my mid-twenties, it was never quiet enough to constitute silence, even inside my apartment. Quiet there was pregnant and foreboding, a pause, much like Paul Simon’s vision softly creeping. Now in Wilmington, the quiet feels more complete, like a final state. Still, the Victorian house of my childhood stays with me. For one, I think my ears might be very, very good. Or maybe they’re just normal but my brain registers the tiny sounds that many would consider insignificant. Every sound might be a warning, like the creak of a pine staircase.

There’s always something to hear. Aluminum sliding against Formica as my cat moves to knock over another soda can, the brush of cockroach legs on hardwood, my neighbor’s air conditioning unit suspended in the narrow alley between our houses. Actually, there’s always something to hear unless you’re in an anechoic chamber. Without the world’s noise, my brain and my ears would begin to hear something out of nothing. My heart pushing blood through my skull. I would become the noise, much like my house did; if I could just get there, perhaps I would even become my own house.

About the Author

Share This:

Leave a Reply

Close Cart
Back to top