In the 1800s, as American settlers pushed westward into 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 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.
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.”
These details caught the imagination of Alex D. Velez, a paleoanthropologist with 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 paper by Velez published in Historical Archaeology suggests this 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.
Velez wanted to understand if there was anything special about the soundscape of the prairie. He couldn’t go back in time to record, unfortunately, but Velez could gather more recent recordings from the plains in Nebraska and Kansas, which captured noises like the wind and rain, and from urban areas like Barcelona or Mexico City, which featured weather sounds as well as the din of 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 humans would naturally be able to hear, the sounds of the city were more diverse, spreading more across the range of human hearing and forming something like white noise. But out on the prairie, there was little to none of that background din. And what sounds there were coincided with a particularly sensitive part of the human hearing range the brain notices more readily.
“The way I can describe it is: it’s very quiet until, suddenly, the noise that you do hear, you can’t hear anything but that,” says Velez.
So one could imagine how a newly arrived settler, used to the sounds of a relatively more urban, small-town, or forested environment, might come to find every chicken cluck that breaks the prairie silence—every frog croak or drip of rainwater—to be as dreadfully distinct (and aggravating) as a clicking pen in a quiet library.
The description of the Great Plains soundscape reminds Adrian KC Lee, an auditory brain scientist 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 those cases, even the smallest sound, like the rustle of clothing or even your own heartbeat, can become impossible to ignore. As Lee pointed out, the human brain will naturally adapt to its environment, essentially turning up or down the volume 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 all of the sudden there’s a loud sound coming on, of course it’s going to give you trouble.”
Jacob Friefeld, is a research historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum who’s written extensively on the Homestead Act, one of the great drivers of westward expansion. He says he has not come across the phenomenon of prairie madness in his own work, but notes that the modern recordings Velez used may be missing some sounds early settlers would have heard, like the howl of wolves or the rumbling of millions-strong herds of American bison. And if settlers were living in sod houses or dugouts, they may have also been treated to the regular sound of insects or other creatures living in the dirt walls.
In addition to the lack of 19th century recordings, studying the symptoms of mental illness in a population of people who lived over 100 years ago is also very difficult. As Velez notes, the specific language or names used for conditions can change, records may be inconsistent, and diagnoses can be affected by societal attitudes—ideas around gender roles or prejudice against certain groups, for example.
Similarly, 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.
In the end, Velez’s work can’t prove how much prairie madness really affected settlers, but it did finally give him an answer to the question that captured his imagination: there may indeed be something in the soundscape of the plains – in Smalley’s silence and McClung’s hateful wind – that may have affected the settler’s minds.
It’s a reminder of how sounds have the power to shape our lives, even today and even outside the Great Plains. Lee said many scientists wonder if the changing soundscapes of the pandemic—due lockdowns and the transition to working from home—had effects on physical and mental well-being.
Pushing even further, he notes that sounds don’t travel as well in the thin atmosphere of 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 get to Mars, settlers will once again curse the silence?