In the 19th century, as American settlers pushed westward onto the Great Plains, stories began to emerge of formerly stable people becoming depressed, anxious, irritable, and even violent with “prairie madness.” And there is some evidence in historical accounts or surveys, which suggested an increase in cases of mental illness in the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, especially on the Great Plains. “An alarming amount of insanity is occurring in the new prairie states [sic] among farmers and their wives,” wrote journalist Eugene Smalley in The Atlantic in 1893.
Both fictional and historical accounts of this time and place often blame “prairie madness” on the isolation and bleak conditions the settlers faced. But many also mention something unexpected: The sounds from the prairie. Smalley wrote that in winter “the silence of death rests on the vast landscape”. And a character in Manitoba settler Nellie McClung’s story “The Neutral Fuse” writes a poem about the throbbing soundtrack of the plains, “I hate the wind with its evil spite, and it hates me with a hatred that’s deep, and hisses and mocks when I trying to sleep.”
These details captured 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 wonder: Is there any truth to this idea? Now a new article by Velez has been published in Historical archaeology suggests that this eerie soundscape—the silence and the howling wind—could indeed have contributed to settler mental illness. It’s not much of a leap: research with 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.
Velez wanted to understand if there was anything special about the soundscape on the prairie. Unfortunately, he could not go back in time to record, but Velez was able to collect recent recordings from the plains of Nebraska and Kansas, which captured sounds such as wind and rain, and from urban areas such as Barcelona or Mexico City, which contained weather sounds in in addition to noise from traffic and pedestrians. He ran 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 a map of sound frequencies that the human ear can pick up and hear.
Velez found that while all the landscapes contained plenty of sounds that humans would naturally be able to hear, the sounds in the city were more diverse, spread more over human hearing, and formed something like white noise. But out on the prairie there was little or nothing of that background. And which sounds coincided with a particularly sensitive part of the human hearing area, the brain discovers more easily.
“The way I can describe it is: it’s very quiet until suddenly the noise you do listen, you can’t hear anything but that, says Velez.
So one could imagine how a newly arrived settler, accustomed to the sounds of a relatively more urban, small-town, or wooded environment, might come to find every chicken cluck that breaks the prairie silence—every frog croak or drip of rainwater—to be just as horribly distinct ( and sharpening) like a clicking pen in a quiet library.
The description of the Great Plains soundscape reminds Adrian KC Lee, an auditory neuroscientist at the University of Washington who was not involved in Velez’s study, of sensory deprivation or being in an anechoic chamber—a room designed to stop echoes. In such cases, even the slightest sound, such as the rustling of clothing or even your own heartbeat, can become impossible to ignore. As Lee pointed out, the human brain will naturally adapt to its surroundings, essentially turning the volume up or down to better distinguish what’s going on.
“Being adaptive is really for survival,” says Lee. “Now, if you adapt to a very low sound environment and suddenly a loud sound comes, of course it will 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 hasn’t encountered the phenomenon of prairie madness in his own work, but notes that the modern recordings Velez used may lack some sounds that early settlers would have heard, such as the howling of wolves or the rumble of million-strong herds of American bison. And if settlers lived in sod houses or burrows, they may also have been treated to the usual sound of insects or other creatures living in the earthen 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 conditions can change, records can be inconsistent, and diagnoses can be influenced by societal attitudes—ideas around gender roles or prejudice against certain groups, for example.
Similarly, it may be impossible to disentangle how much an episode of irritability or depression came from the soundscape and how much it was a reaction to the stress or isolation, the latter of which may have been particularly jarring. While people further east may have lived in more small, close-knit communities, their neighbors were often miles away when they were out on the plains. The transition may have been most difficult for women, who were often tasked with staying at home, limiting their already meager prospects for stimulation and socialization. Add to that the fear of freezing, or crop failure, or household financial ruin, and it’s no wonder someone got stressed.
In the end, Velez’s work cannot prove how much prairie madness really affected settlers, but it finally gave him an answer to the question that captured his imagination: there might indeed be something in the soundscape of the plains—in Smalley’s silence and McClung’s hateful wind—that could have influenced the settler’s mind.
It’s a reminder of how sounds have the power to shape our lives, even today and even beyond the Great Plains. Lee said many researchers wonder whether the changing soundscapes of the pandemic — due to shutdowns and the shift to working from home — had effects on physical and mental well-being.
He pushes even further, noting that sounds don’t travel as well in the thin atmosphere on Mars as they do on Earth. If the soundscape of the prairie leads to anxiety and depression for some, does that mean that one day, when humans arrive on Mars, settlers will once again curse the silence?