The Strange Mystery of ‘Prairie Madness’ | boing boing

A new article in Atlas Obscura delves into the mystery of what some have called “prairie madness,” a phenomenon that seemed to plague American settlers in the mid-1800s to early 1900s as they moved across west and settled in the Great Plains. According to James Gaines, during this period:

Stories began to emerge of once stable people becoming depressed, anxious, irritable, and even violent with “prairie madness.” And there is evidence in historical accounts or surveys, which suggests an increase in cases of mental illness between the mid-1800s and early 1900s, particularly in the Great Plains. “An alarming amount of craziness is happening in the new prairie states [sic] among the farmers and their wives,” journalist Eugene Smalley wrote in The Atlantic in 1893.

What caused this phenomenon? It’s hard to say, but there are several theories. James Gaines continues:

Fictional and historical accounts of this time and place often blame “prairie madness” on the isolation and grim conditions the settlers encountered. But many also mention something unexpected: the sounds of the meadow. Smalley wrote that in winter “the silence of death rests upon the wide landscape”. And a character from Manitoba settler Nellie McClung’s story “The Neutral Fuse” writes a poem on the humming soundtrack of the plains, “I hate the wind with its devilish malice, and it hates me with such deep hatred, and whistles and mocks when I try to sleep.”

This soundscape theory has new research to back it up. SUNY-Oswego paleoanthropologist Alex D. Velez recently published an article in which he describes his new research, which involved collecting and analyzing sound recordings from the plains of Nebraska and Kansas and cities like Barcelona and Mexico City. He analyzed the recordings, mapping the range of sound frequencies that the human ear can register. He found that city soundscapes are more diverse and act on the human ear like white noise. The prairie soundscapes, however, lack that kind of white noise effect. ‘Cause there’s no background noise, when you do hear noises in the meadow, they stand out more and are more likely to cause disturbance and aggravation. James Gaines explains that Velez’s research led him to conclude that:

A strange soundscape – the silence and the howling wind – may indeed have contributed to mental illness among the settlers. That’s no leap: Research on modern topics has shown that what we hear can exacerbate not only sleep, stress, and mental health issues, but also cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

There’s no way to know for sure if Velez is right. Some experts warn that modern sound recordings of the plains cannot capture what they would have sounded like in the 19th century, when the sounds of wolves and bison would have been more prevalent, and when the sounds of insects living in the walls of the houses of the settlers would have existed. in a way, they don’t now. Others point out that it is very difficult to study how mental illness would have played out in a population living more than a century ago, especially given the differing social roles and norms. Gaines explains:

It may be impossible to disentangle how much of an episode of irritability or depression stemmed from the soundscape and how much it was a reaction to stress or isolation, the latter of which may have been particularly shocking. While people farther east may have lived in smaller, more tight-knit communities, once on the plains neighbors were often miles away. The transition was perhaps most difficult for the women, who were often tasked with staying home, limiting their already meager prospects for stimulation and socialization. Add to that the fear of frost, crop failure or monetary ruin inherent in homesteading and it’s no wonder some people were stressed.

Even with all those caveats, it’s a really interesting hypothesis and one that resonates deeply with me. I am very sensitive to noise. I can’t sleep in a quiet house – I hear every passing car, every buzzing every time the fridge or air conditioning comes on, every whine my dog ​​makes if he has a bad dream. I drown out the silence and silence-breaking noises by playing white noise through my headphones. I also have a fan in my bedroom that blows loudly all night. I’ve always said that what I fear most about the zombie apocalypse is not having access to electricity to charge my phone and therefore not being able to use my white noise app at night . I would die not from the zombies tearing my flesh out trying to eat me, but from sleep deprivation. And I would slowly go crazy in the meantime. So yes, Velez’s hypothesis seems quite plausible to me.


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