Orfield Laboratories in South Minneapolis used to be the home of “the quietest place on earth,” as recorded in the Guinness World Records. (It also happens to share the same building as the recording studio where “Funkytown” and Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” were recorded.) The lab is called an anechoic chamber, meaning there is no echo as the room absorbs 99.99% of sound. It is used by various manufacturers to test product volume and sound quality – it can also drive a person mad.
Members of the public must book a tour to visit the room, and are only allowed in for a short and supervised stay. According to the lab’s website, only members of the media are permitted to stay in the chamber alone for prolonged periods of time. One reporter lasted up to 45 minutes, and most people leave after half that time, tortured by the eerie sounds of their own body. “In the anechoic chamber, you become the sound,” says Mr. Orfield. In the absence of outside noise, it is the presence of maddening silence to which the ears adapt. As ears adapt to silence, the sounds of your heart beat, stomach, and lungs are your only reference, and it can be a very disorienting experience.
Mr. Orfield explains that the only way to stay in the room for an extended period of time is to sit down. A person’s orientation is largely secured by the sounds made when walking or standing, and as those sound cues are taken away, perception becomes skewed, and balance and movement becomes an almost impossible feat.
A typical quiet bedroom at night measures about 30 decibels; this chamber measures at -9 decibels. It is made of 3.3-foot-thick fiberglass acoustic wedges, double walls of insulated steel and foot-thick concrete.
Manufacturers use the lab for product testing and development. Companies like Harley Davidson use the lab to create quieter bikes that still sound like a Harley, for instance. Other products like LED displays are tested to make sure their volume is not too loud. NASA, in fact, uses a similar lab to test its astronauts, given that space is like one giant anechoic chamber, explains Mr. Orfield.