12/16/2014 02:35 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2015


My wife, Judy, and I recently vacationed in the theater district of New York City. We had a wonderful time and enjoyed all the attractions of that great city -- good hotels, excellent restaurants, exciting theater and world class museums.

But you can't have eight million people together in a confined space without noise. It was pervasive. Street noise such as sirens, cars, buses, horns tooting, street crossings clanging was everywhere. Even indoors at a restaurant or coffee shop, the sound of machines steaming, people shouting their orders, background conversations and loud music was unsettling.

We arrived 10 minutes after the opening of the Museum of Modern Art and found what seemed to be about 2,000 people in the lobby and a line for tickets that snaked through the lobby and went for a block outside. That ended our chance for a leisurely study of the Matisse Cutouts. We decided to leave and carefully crossed the lines avoiding doing anything like we were going to cut in. Unlike other countries, the U.S. has strict line etiquette and cutting in risks grave bodily harm.

There is literature that indicates that such an environment can result in irritability, anxiety and aggressive behavior. If you are in an overly stimulating environment for an extended period, you will adapt, partly by ignoring some of the stimuli but your nerves are hypersensitive to any incursion on your space or your rights.

I contrasted this with the rural areas of Tanzania where I visit periodically. It is quiet and cars and trucks keep to the paved highway for the most part. There is no loud music and the streets are not crowded. During election campaigns, car-mounted loudspeakers blare music and speeches and because this sound is so unusual, it is very noticeable. Otherwise, except for the sounds of women and children singing, it is quiet. Even though most people are extremely poor, they are happy and generally content. Relationships are very important and people spend a lot of time reinforcing them through conversation. Appointments and meetings generally start late because the participants stop on the way to talk to a friend or family member.

When people from these rural areas visit the U.S., they are overwhelmed by the stimuli in our environment. They tire easily and can have problems concentrating. Our style is too fast-paced for them and they are uncomfortable.

However, our Western ways are making inroads in Africa. In the big cities in Tanzania, like Dar Es Salaam or Arusha, the environment is approaching that of New York City. There are traffic jams, horn tooting, many people crowded into a small area. The noise level is increasing and there is more "bustle" in the way people behave. Most people have cell phones and discover that they have important things to tell their friends -- things that previously could have waited or were too trivial to remember for later reporting.

Nineteenth century advocates of mountain or ocean voyage cures had a point. In the 21st century, we need a quiet cure -- possibly at Glacier National Park or rural Tanzania. However, withdrawal from an overly stimulating environment can often lead to boredom and depression. I guess that means, that I leave the New Yorkers to their cacophony and recruit volunteers from Iowa.