The bizarre mystery of "prairie madness"

A new article in Atlas Obscura dives into the mystery of what some have called "prairie madness," a phenomenon that seemed to afflict American settlers in the mid-1800s to early 1900s as they moved westward and settled into the Great Plains. According to James Gaines, during that time period:

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 a rise in cases of mental illness in the mid-1800's to early 1900's, particularly in the Great Plains. "An alarming amount of insanity occurs 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: 

Both fictional and historical accounts of this time and place often blame "prairie madness" on the isolation and bleak conditions the settlers encountered. But many also mention something unexpected: the sounds of the prairie. Smalley wrote that during 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 droning soundtrack of the plains, "I hate the wind with its evil spite, and it hates me with a hate as deep, and hisses and jeers when I try to sleep."

This soundscape theory has new research to support it. SUNY-Oswego paleoanthropologist Alex D. Velez recently published a paper where he describes his new research, which entailed gathering and analyzing sound recordings from plains in Nebraska and Kansas and from 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. Because there is no background din, when you do hear noises in the prairie, they stick out more, and are more likely to cause disturbance and aggravation. James Gaines explains that Velez's research has led him to conclude that the:

Eerie soundscape—the silence and the howling wind—could indeed have contributed to mental illness in settlers. It's not much of a leap: research with modern subjects has shown that what we hear can exacerbate not only sleep, stress, and mental health problems, but even cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

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

It may be impossible to untangle how much any one episode of irritability or depression came from the soundscape and how much it was a reaction to the stress or the isolation, the latter of which may have been particularly jarring. Whereas further East people may have lived in more small, close-knit communities, once out in the plains neighbors were often miles away. The transition may have been hardest for women, who were often tasked with staying home, limiting their already meager prospects for stimulation and socialization. Add on to that the fear of freezing, or crop failure, or monetary ruin inherent in homesteading and it's little wonder some folks were stressed.

Even given all of these caveats, it's a really interesting hypothesis and one that resonates deeply with me. I'm someone who is highly sensitive to noise. I can't sleep in a silent house – I hear every car passing by, every hum each time the refrigerator or air conditioner switches on, every whimper my dog makes if he's having a bad dream. I drown out the silence and the noises breaking the silence by playing white noise in my earbuds. I also have a fan in my bedroom that blows on high throughout the night. I always said the thing I fear most about the zombie apocalypse is not having access to electricity to charge my phone and thus not being able to use my white noise app at night. I'd die not because zombies ripped my flesh apart while trying to eat me, but from sleep deprivation. And I'd slowly go mad in the meantime. So, yeah, Velez's hypothesis seems totally plausible to me.