A new article in Atlas Obscura delves into the mystery of what some have dubbed “prairie madness,” a phenomenon that seemed to afflict American settlers in the mid-18th to early 20th centuries as they migrated west and settled on the Great Plains. Corresponding James GainesDuring this time:
Stories have surfaced of formerly stable people becoming depressed, anxious, irritable, and even violent as a result of “prairie madness.” And there are some indications in historical reports or polls that indicated an increase 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 farmers and their wives,” wrote journalist Eugene Smalley in The Atlantic in 1893.
What caused this phenomenon? It’s hard to say, but there are several theories. James Gaines continues:
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 pounding soundtrack of the prairie: “I hate the wind with its evil malice, and it hates me with an equally deep hatred, and it hisses and jeers when I try to sleep.”
This soundscape theory is supported by new research. SUNY-Oswego paleoanthropologist Alex D. Velez recently published a paper describing his new research, which involved collecting and analyzing sound recordings from plains in Nebraska and Kansas and from cities like Barcelona and Mexico City. He analyzed the recordings and mapped the range of sound frequencies that the human ear can perceive. He found that background noise in cities is more diverse and sounds like white noise to the human ear. However, the prairie soundscapes lack that kind of white noise. Because there is no background noise when you do Hearing sounds on the prairie make them more noticeable and more likely to cause disruption and annoyance. James Gaines explains that Velez’s research led him to conclude that:
The eerie soundscape—the silence and the howling wind—may actually have contributed to mental illness among settlers. It’s not a huge leap: research using modern subjects has shown that what we hear can not only worsen sleep, stress and psychological problems, but even 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 from the plains cannot reproduce what they would have sounded like in the 19th century, when wolves and bison would have been more prevalent and sounds of insects living in the walls of settlers’ homes existed, in a way they do it not now. Others point out that it is very difficult to study how mental illness would have affected a population over a century ago, especially given different social roles and norms. Gaines explains:
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 lived in smaller, close-knit communities, their 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.
Despite all these caveats, it’s a really interesting hypothesis that touches me deeply. I am someone who is very sensitive to noise. I can’t sleep in a quiet house — I hear every car that drives by, every hum every time the fridge or air conditioner comes on, every whimper from my dog when he’s having a bad dream. I drown out the silence and the noise that breaks the silence by playing white noise in my earbuds. I also have a fan in my bedroom that blows at full blast all night. I’ve always said what I fear most about the zombie apocalypse is that I don’t have access to electricity to charge my phone, so I can’t use my white noise app at night. I wouldn’t die from zombies tearing my flesh trying to eat me, I would die from sleep deprivation. And I would be slowly going insane in the meantime. So, yes, Velez’s hypothesis seems perfectly plausible to me.