An Audiac demonstration at a dental conference in Des Moines, Iowa, 1960. Photograph by Mike Jacobs
SOUND THAT KILLS PAIN
By Will Stephenson
Outskirts of the Southern Canon
My grandfather and namesake was a dentist and, for a few years in the mid-1960s, president of the Georgia Dental Association—a post that carried with it no small degree of responsibility to his peers in the fraternity of Southern teeth specialists. He was a proud man—golfer, churchgoer, Republican stalwart—and he took his work seriously. As part of his obligations, he was expected to travel to conferences all over the country, getting briefed on the latest innovations in the field. Which was how, at a seminar in Texas on the subject of pain control, he was first introduced to the concept of audio-anesthesia.
The problem of pain is one that has long troubled humans in general, but dentists, perhaps, in particular. The issue has vexed the field for centuries. The Oxford Textbook of Anaesthesia for Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery makes reference to one procedure in use as recently as 1911, which involved “forcing a mixture of black coffee and brandy into the patient (presumably via the mouth), and flicking the chest with wet towels.” Intravenous anaesthesia had appeared by the 1930s, in the form of the barbiturate thiopentone, but the practice remained in its infancy. “It is said,” the Oxford Textbook notes, “that American anaesthesiologists unfortunately killed many injured service personnel after the attack on Pearl Harbour by not realizing how dangerous thiopentone was in shock.” (The drug doubled, during these years, as one of the most prominent lethal injection products on the market.) By the late 1950s, general anesthesia in the dentistry community had come under intense scrutiny, given the widely reported numbers of unnecessary deaths. There was the sense that something else—something safer, less toxic, simpler—could be the answer.
This was the focus of the lecture my grandfather attended that day in Texas in the 1960s, and he was enthralled by what he learned. The doctor leading the course first discussed one method by which the dentist could put cocaine on the end of long probe and apply it directly to the ganglion in the back of the sinuses. He’d had patients lining up around the block for this procedure, he bragged. But my grandfather was a gadget man—he preferred a different demonstration, that of a brand new device being marketed as the Audiac.
Developed in 1959 and introduced in 1960, the Audiac was touted in newspapers as “Sound That Kills Pain.” The device consisted of headphones attached to a proprietary box delivering stereophonic music alongside a “masking sound” (white noise, for instance), in which the patient controlled the levels of the two simultaneous audio streams. “Music to drill to,” quipped Popular Science, noting that “audio-analgesia [had] now replaced anesthetics.” The New York Times called it a “new invention that deadens the pain of dentistry with music” and announced, “The day finally has arrived when a woman can bribe her youngsters with, ‘If you’re good, I’ll take you to the dentist.’” Pop music was deemed most effective. “Since ‘peppy music’ seems to be the best kind for extractions,” argued Billboard, “jazz would seem a natural for inclusion in the dentist’s pain killing repertoire.” As another doctor told the Times, “It’s amazing—it’s putting some fun into dentistry.” Sixty-five percent of patients found the process fully effective and “9 out of 10” judged it at the very least adequate.
My grandfather couldn’t afford the real device, so he rigged up a makeshift version as soon as he got home. He set up a reel-to-reel tape player in front of the television and recorded music live off The Lawrence Welk Show. “Obviously it was a complete failure due to such an amateurish attempt,” my uncle wrote me recently, “but that was Dad!” The idea, anyway, seemed full of promise. For years he tried convincing his patients (and peers) that they could choose headphones over drugs—that music could be a painkiller just as potent. He finally gave up the dream when the Sheriff of Tift County tore the armrest off his dental chair in the middle of a root canal. But as my uncle remembered, “That tape player stayed in our hall closet for years.”
The dentist behind the Audiac was Dr. Wallace Gardner, a Harvard Dental School graduate who had stuck around Cambridge, opening an office near Porter Square, and had developed a thriving practice geared toward the city’s intellectual class. “It went along very well some 20 years,” he later told an alumni bulletin. He married and had four children; he wore a bow tie to work. But in the late fifties, Gardner’s life had begun to disintegrate. “Dentistry is hard work,” he told the bulletin. “And the work can become very tedious, especially if there are other problems in one’s life.” His wife had asked for a divorce. “There came a time around 1959,” he said, “when the task of pleasing a few of my cantankerous patients was just too much—frankly, I did not know what to do. I felt cornered.” That was around the time that a man named Licklider walked into his office for a routine appointment, and the life of Wallace Gardner took an unexpected turn.
The list of people credited with inventing the Internet and modern computing is dauntingly long, but the Missouri native J.C.R. Licklider is somewhere near the top. “Computing’s Johnny Appleseed,” as he was once described by the MIT Technology Review, Licklider was the author of the seminal 1960 paper “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” which prophesied a future in which machine cognition would be more efficient than our own, in which we must think beyond “using computers in conventional ways” toward a system which would “require much tighter coupling between man and machine.” M. Mitchell Waldrop, author of the definitive biography, The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal, has argued that, with his “laconic Missouri twang” and “impeccable Southern manners,” Licklider “laid the foundations for time-sharing, point-and-click interfaces, graphics, and the Internet—virtually all of modern computing.” But before he accomplished any of this, one afternoon in Boston in 1959, Licklider had to go to the dentist.
Lick, as he was known to friends, got along well with Gardner, and enjoyed discussing the machinery and other devices of the dentists’ trade. He had recently emerged from the Harvard Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory and was looking for applications for his research into pitch perception, “the theory of hearing and what went on in the brain,” as he put it in a 1988 oral history interview. Given his accomplishments in the field, he’d been invited to start an experimental psychology unit at a company called BBN Technologies, which collaborated closely with the military. They did abstruse testing on radar, sonar, and the long-term neurological effects of aircraft noise.
On this particular afternoon, he was feeling especially bold. “I asked about putting earphones on him,” Gardner, who had been curious about music’s narcotic potential, remembered later, “and he said OK. So I hooked earphones into a radio, and while he listened to music, I repaired three cavities. [Licklider] never felt a thing. Together we discovered that the music and white sound provided a perfect anesthesia for all dental work, including surgery.” Lick developed a version of the device at BBN for testing and before long he and Gardner were touring the country with their invention, logging roughly two hundred thousand miles, extracting wisdom teeth and “helping several women manage their pain during childbirth” with only pop music to comfort them. Gardner made the cover of LOOK magazine (headline: DENTISTRY GOES ‘HI-FI’). “It was the highlight of my dental career,” he’d say later.
Unfortunately, Lick lost interest in the project almost immediately. Due to the interdisciplinary quality of the city’s academic community, he’d also become increasingly invested in cybernetics and computing. He followed the ideas of Norbert Wiener with great interest, particularly those set forth in his then-classic “Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.” But Lick had begun to accumulate disciples of his own, and had started to take Wiener’s theories in stranger, more ambitious directions. Among other things, he’d begun to formulate the concepts that would later lead to the development of the ARPANET, the Internet's most direct precursor. He’d moved on to writing papers on higher-wattage concepts like the “Intergalactic Computer Network” (1963) and the “Computer as a Communication Device” (1968). Neither the Audiac nor Gardner appear even as footnotes in Waldrop’s biography of the scientist.
So it was Gardner who was left holding the bag when the excitement around audio-anesthesia began to wane. The initially promising results just weren’t replicable, it appeared. A 1969 peer-reviewed paper, “Audio Analgesia Revisited,” noted that the process had become the “subject of much controversy” and had produced only “unpredictable results.” The article’s author, Richard L. Weisbrod, argued that the procedure may only have worked because of “cross-sensory masking, the direct suppression of pain by intense stimulation of another sensory mode” (not unlike using an ice-cold press to divert a patient’s attention from a bruised ankle.) The process, that is, worked largely through distraction.
Weisbrod finished his evisceration by referencing a magazine article titled “Going Deaf from Rock ’n’ Roll.” Why, he asked, do young people immerse themselves in noise that is so uncomfortable to older generations? He quoted a Florida teenager from the story: “The sounds embalm you,” the boy said. “They numb you . . .”
One of our most compelling definitions of pain comes from a 1953 Scientific American article by W. K. Livingston: “Pain has been considered to be a product of consciousness in which the basic element is awareness.” If anything, Licklider’s involvement in the invention of audio-anesthesia at the very moment he was developing his notion of the “Intergalactic Computer Network,” shows he understood more about man-computer symbiosis than he’s ever been fully credited for. Headphones are painkillers—annihilators of the problem of awareness—and they always have been.
Marshall McLuhan, maybe predictably, was obsessed with the Audiac and its implications. “The interplay among our senses is perpetual save in conditions of anesthesia,” he wrote in 1962’s The Gutenberg Galaxy. “But any sense when stepped up to high intensity can act as an anesthetic for other senses. The dentist can now use [the] ‘Audiac’—induced noise—to remove tactility.” He added, “The result is a break in the ratio among the senses, a kind of loss of identity.” He returned to the idea two years later, in Understanding Media: “The patient puts on headphones and turns a dial raising the noise level to the point that he feels no pain from the drill. The selection of a single sense for intense stimulus, or of a single extended, isolated, or ‘amputated’ sense in technology, is in part the reason for the numbing effect that technology as such has on its makers and users.”
McLuhan’s notions of a “loss of identity” and a “numbing effect” have only been crystallized in recent years. Dr. Kurt Fristrup, a senior scientist with the U.S. National Park Service, recently spoke to the American Association for the Advancement of Science about his concerns that we are approaching kind of “learned deafness” or “generational amnesia” due to our auditory insularity, a collective attempt to deliberately drown out of the world’s ambient noise. “We are conditioning ourselves,” The Guardian quoted him as saying, “to ignore the information coming into our ears.”
There was a sense of radical possibility in Licklider’s writings—and those of the other early tech prophets—that has become harder to access as their ideas have come to fruition. “In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face,” he wrote in 1968. What he didn’t predict was that a few years after that, men wouldn’t necessarily be interested in communicating at all. Most of the time I wear headphones to avoid conversations, to avoid thought, to avoid, especially, contemplating the future—what seemed to be Licklider’s favorite pastime. If we’re nostalgic for his particular future, it’s for the notion that “Man-Computer Symbiosis” would amount to anything more than another opportunity for distraction. The problem isn’t that audio-anesthesia doesn’t work, in other words, it’s that it works too well. Some days, it’s the only thing that works.
“Outskirts of the Southern Canon” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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