Is the silence of the Great Plains to blame for the “prairie madness”?

Is the silence of the Great Plains to blame for the “prairie madness”?

In the 1800s as an American As settlers ventured west into the Great Plains, stories surfaced of formerly stable people becoming depressed, anxious, irritable, and even violent with “prairie madness.” And there is some evidence in historical accounts or surveys that points to a rise in cases of mental illness in the mid-19th century to early 20th century, particularly on the Great Plains. “An alarming level of madness is occurring in the new prairie states [sic] among peasants and their wives,” wrote journalist Eugene Smalley in The Atlantic in 1893.

Accounts, both fictional and historical, from this time and place often blame the isolation and desolate conditions of the settlers for the “prairie madness.” But many also mention something unexpected: the sounds of the prairie. Smalley wrote that in winter “the stillness of death rests on the wide landscape”. And a character in Manitoba settler Nellie McClung’s story “The Neutral Fuse” writes a poem about the blaring soundtrack of the prairie: “I hate the wind with its wicked malice, and it hates me with an equally deep hatred, and hisses and jeers him I’m trying to sleep.”

These details caught the imagination of Alex D. Velez, a paleoanthropologist at the State University of New York at Oswego, who studies the evolution of human hearing, and made him ask: Is there any truth to this idea? Now a new paper by Velez has been published Historical Archaeology suggests that this eerie soundscape—the silence and the howling wind—may actually have contributed to insanity among settlers. It’s not a huge leap: Research using modern subjects has shown that what we hear can worsen not only sleep, stress, and mental health problems, but even cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

To determine how the sounds of the prairie differ in frequency from those found in more urban settings, study author Alex D. Velez compared recordings from places like Mexico City to recordings from the Great Plains.
To determine how the sounds of the prairie differ in frequency from those found in more urban settings, study author Alex D. Velez compared recordings from places like Mexico City to recordings from the Great Plains. ProtoplasmaKid, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Velez wanted to know if there was anything special about the sounds of the prairie. Unfortunately, he couldn’t go back in time to record, but Velez was able to collect more recent recordings from the plains in Nebraska and Kansas, which captured sounds like wind and rain, and from urban areas like Barcelona or Mexico City, which showed weather noises as well as traffic and pedestrian noise. He fed the recordings into a program that created visual representations of the spectrum of sound frequencies in the recordings and compared the results to each other and to a map of sound frequencies that the human ear can pick up and hear.

Velez found that while all landscapes contained many sounds that humans could naturally hear, the city’s sounds were more diverse, spreading more beyond the range of human hearing, forming something akin to white noise. But out on the prairie there was little to none of that background noise. And what sounds there coincided with a particularly sensitive part of the human auditory range, the brain perceives more easily.

“I can describe it like this: It’s very quiet, until suddenly the noise comes that you hear do hear, you hear nothing else,” says Velez.

One could imagine, then, how a newly arrived settler, accustomed to the sounds of a comparatively more urban, small-town, or wooded environment, could find every chicken cackle breaking the stillness of the prairie—every frog croak or drop of rainwater—so terribly distinct ( and angry) like a clicking pen in a quiet library.

For Adrian KC Lee, a University of Washington auditory brain researcher who was not involved in the study, describing the Great Plains' soundscape is reminiscent of being in an anechoic chamber — a room designed to stop echoes.
For Adrian KC Lee, a University of Washington auditory brain researcher who was not involved in the study, describing the Great Plains’ soundscape is reminiscent of being in an anechoic chamber — a room designed to stop echoes. Mihaelawojcik, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Describing the soundscape of the Great Plains reminds Adrian KC Lee, a University of Washington auditory brain researcher who was not involved in Velez’s study, of sensory deprivation or being in an anechoic chamber — a room designed to absorb echoes to stop. In these cases, even the smallest sound, like the rustling of clothes or even your own heartbeat, can become unmistakable. As Lee pointed out, the human brain naturally adapts to its environment, essentially turning the volume up or down to better distinguish what’s going on.

“Adaptation is really a matter of survival,” says Lee. “Now if you get used to a very quiet environment and suddenly there’s a loud noise, obviously it’s going to cause you problems.”

Jacob Friefeld is a research historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum who has written extensively on the Homestead Act, one of the major drivers of westward expansion. He says he did not encounter the prairie madness phenomenon in his own work, but notes that the modern recordings Velez used may be missing some sounds that early settlers would have heard, such as howling wolves or the rumblings of millions of herds of American bison. And when settlers lived in turf houses or dugouts, they might also have been faced with the regular sound of insects or other creatures living in the mud walls.

In addition to the lack of 19th-century records, it is also very difficult to study the symptoms of mental illness in a population of people who lived over 100 years ago. As Velez notes, the specific language or names used for disorders can change, records can be inconsistent, and diagnoses can be influenced by societal attitudes — such as ideas about gender roles or prejudice against certain groups.

Jacob Friefeld, a historian not involved in the study, wonders if it's possible to accurately explain all the sounds settlers heard, including the insects and other creatures that lived in the walls of their mud houses.
Jacob Friefeld, a historian not involved in the study, wonders if it’s possible to accurately explain all the sounds settlers heard, including the insects and other creatures that lived in the walls of their mud houses. Nebraska State Historical Society, nbhips 10216

Likewise, it can be impossible to disentangle how much a single episode of irritability or depression stemmed from the background noise and how much it was a reaction to stress or isolation, the latter of which may have been particularly upsetting. While people farther east might have lived in smaller, close-knit communities, neighbors on the plains were often miles apart. The transition may have been most difficult for women, who were often tasked with staying at home, limiting their already slim prospects for stimulation and socialization. Add to this the fear of freezing, crop failure, or financial ruin that comes with home farming, and it’s no wonder some people have been stressed.

Ultimately, Velez’s work doesn’t prove how much the prairie madness really affected Settlers, but it did finally give him an answer to the question that fired his imagination: There might actually be something in the sounds of the prairie—in Smalley’s silence and McClung’s hateful wind – that may have affected the settler’s thoughts.

It’s a reminder of how sound has the power to shape our lives, even today and even beyond the Great Plains. Lee said many scientists wonder if the pandemic’s changing soundscapes — due to lockdowns and the shift to working from home — have impacted physical and mental well-being.

He goes further and finds that noise doesn’t propagate as well in Mars’ thin atmosphere as it does on Earth. If the sounds of the prairie cause fear and depression in some, does that mean that one day, when humans reach Mars, the settlers will curse the silence again?

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