December 2, 2023

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Why did Early American Settlers stuggling with “Prairie Madness”?

Why did Early American Settlers stuggling with “Prairie Madness”?

Why did Early American Settlers stuggling with “Prairie Madness”?

In the 19th century, a peculiar malady known as Prairie Madness afflicted North America.

Echoes of this enigmatic ailment can still be found in writings documenting the lives of those who experienced it.

In a newspaper article from 1893, a journalist wrote, “In the new territories, an astonishing number of farmers and their wives succumbed to mental derangement.”



Why did Early American Settlers stuggling with "Prairie Madness"?


During this period, Americans and immigrants from several European colonial powers ventured to the vast prairies of Canada and the American West, embarking on a life that was drastically different from their previous social surroundings. However, they were unprepared for the onset of what came to be known as “Prairie Madness.”

In the face of profound loneliness and harsh living conditions, the new inhabitants of these remote regions endured widespread torment in the form of depression. Some individuals found the isolation unbearable and hastily returned to their former homes, while others suffered from insomnia, resentment, and, in extreme cases, resorted to violence and suicide.

The prevailing belief at the time was that this affliction stemmed from intense loneliness. Their previous homes had offered rich social lives, with opportunities for interaction in bustling villages that contrasted sharply with the monotonous routine of prairie life.

However, as the journalist noted, on the open prairie, your nearest neighbor was often kilometers away, making it challenging to establish quick bonds of trust with strangers. Additionally, the monotonous landscape of the prairie, devoid of the bustling scenes of bustling port towns, green hills, or picturesque villages, contributed to the Europeans losing their mental equilibrium.

But what caused “Prairie Madness” was not solely the overwhelming solitude and environmental challenges. In 2022, Melcarriere and his wife, who had recently settled on the prairie, experienced “Prairie Madness” firsthand. He wrote online that life on the prairie felt “sunny” and “relaxing,” but the reality of “Prairie Madness” was undeniably genuine. His wife struggled to tolerate the relentless winds on the prairie, and locals warned them about the unique and unsettling nature of these winds.

Initially skeptical, Melcarriere gradually perceived these winds as malevolent, akin to wailing enchantresses, evoking unpredictable and unstable moods. A study published in 2022 in the “Journal of Historical Archaeology” explained that this mental derangement was attributed to the “terrifying sounds of the wind.”

Researchers collected environmental sounds from the Great Plains (wind and rain white noise) and urban areas (traffic, pedestrian noise). According to the human auditory curve, humans are most sensitive to sounds in the 1000 to 2000 Hz range, with sensitivity dropping sharply between 2000 and 3000 Hz, and stabilizing between 3000 and 8000 Hz. Consequently, people living on the Great Plains could easily hear every rustle of the wind.

Why did Early American Settlers stuggling with "Prairie Madness"?

People’s sensitivity curve to sound.


The researchers found that urban soundscapes were diverse, with sounds around 1000 Hz as well as at 5000, 7500, 8000, 11,000, and 16,000 Hz. This indicated that urban sounds, when not disruptive, served as effective white noise, dispersing various sounds. Conversely, on the prairie, there was no noise to disperse the wind’s relentless howling, making it irritating and impossible to ignore.

This wind noise likely caused “auditory hypersensitivity” and “phonophobia.” Individuals with auditory hypersensitivity find certain sounds intolerable, causing stress, irritability, headaches, anxiety, and potentially leading to phonophobia, a psychological disorder characterized by fear of specific sounds.

The combination of loneliness-induced depression and long-term exposure to this inescapable wind noise exacerbated the situation, potentially triggering psychological disorders that affected people’s behavior and mental health. This research serves as a reminder that, apart from visible environmental factors, sound also plays a vital role in our lives. A 2022 report found that 5% of hospitalizations for heart disease in New Jersey were attributable to high noise levels. In areas with elevated traffic noise, the incidence of heart attacks was 72% higher.

Although the exact relationship between noise and heart disease remains unclear, earlier studies have shown that noise pollution leads to stress, sleep disturbances, and emotional problems, all of which are linked to mental health. When in a bad mood or experiencing discomfort, it might be worth considering eliminating unpleasant sounds from your life. Some even speculate that if humans were to migrate to Mars, where the thin atmosphere poorly transmits sound, they might face psychological challenges similar to “Prairie Madness” in the midst of silence.

Unfortunately, there’s no surefire way to disperse the sounds of noisy neighbors…



Why did Early American Settlers stuggling with “Prairie Madness”?

(source:internet, reference only)

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