Signal-to-Noise Ratio

By: Peggy Nelson
August 12, 2010

A noise by any other name would sound as — signal. If your house is on fire a siren is a signal; but if not, it’s simply noise that wakes you up at 2am. Signal and noise are terms of relative relevance — once we have determined our focus, essential and superfluous claim their own. But these are fluid categories; as focus shifts, so too its subjects. In the audioscape this is literally true; signal and noise are sounds. In the infoscape this is literally everything, as signal and noise shift swiftly to metaphor.

New research from Massachusetts General Hospital suggests that some people are able to sleep soundly because their brain rhythms react in patterns of “spindles,” which seem to block noise. Spindles seem to be interpreters as well as guards — should I jump out of bed, be instantly alert, or should I just roll over and drift back into REM? Spindle activity is thick in the sound sleepers, and more so in a noisy environment; while in light sleepers, it is lacking.

And some sleepers are perhaps just more efficient. Sleeping Beauty needed only a single spindle to send her to sleep for a hundred years.

Metaphorically, this is an interpretive stance. Spindles may be blocking noise, but what they are doing is not dampening your eardrums; they are interpreting an interruption as sound without significance, as not worth wakefulness or reaction. In effect, spindles are not changing the sound, nor its transmissable vibrations, they are changing its category, shifting it from signal to noise, from meaning to meaningless.

And if they can do this with sounds, one wonders: what about everything else? Signal and noise shift at the behest of outrageous fortune. What keeps you up at night is perchance an idea, not a sound. Might these spindles be deployed to convert signals no longer desired as such, back into merciful, meaningless noise? The world forgetting, by the world, forgot.”

The fairy tale was not the spindle, nor the wooded sleep; we see that now revealed as science. But the tapestry for which these spindled threads are destined has yet to be woven.



What do you think?

  1. I think I burnt out my spindles, or else crafted too many. Shannon tells me it’s all information, and I just need to reduce the entropy. It may reduce me first.

  2. I think that spindles really depend on people. For me, I felt sleep with continuous noise. Then, if the noise stop – I feel awake. It seems that a sudden rise or stoppage of noise disturb that spindles.

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