The silent treatment

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Anthropology / Biology / Health / Medicine / Psychology

Stop right now and listen. What can you hear? I’m betting you can hear something: it’s a noisy world we live in. You’re probably well aware that too much noise is bad for you. As well as obvious problems like hearing loss and ringing in the ears, noise has been shown to cause stress, insomnia and even heart disease. New research suggests it’s time we embraced the power of silence.

How's the serenity? Science says silence is good for the brain.

How’s the serenity? Science says silence is good for the brain. Image credit Moya Brenn via Flickr

Silence is golden

If you’re anything like me – young kids, a busy job and an addiction to good conversation, podcasts and audiobooks – there’s probably a distinct lack of quiet in your life. But beyond all the wonderful sounds I choose to surround myself with, there’s also plenty of noise, sounds I’d rather not have to listen to. Traffic, the building site right outside my window at work and annoying mobile ringtones, to name a few.

The word ‘noise’ comes from the Latin meaning pain or queasiness. And noise, now often referred to as noise pollution, has been blamed for a variety of ills. Sleeping problems, high blood pressure, difficulty concentrating and heart disease are some of the main concerns. And noise can also simply get to us, hence the diagnosis of ‘noise annoyance’. Sound vibrates the bones in our ears, which get converted into electrical signals to our brain. Our bodies respond to these signals, often resulting in the release of stress hormones like cortisol. Noise has this effect even if you’re sound asleep, and it’s not good news. If you live in a noisy place, you’re probably also living with permanently high levels of stress. Kids living in noisy places may experience learning difficulties amongst other problems.

What to do about it? Research suggests that it’s not enough to simply seek a little peace and quiet, but that silence is more powerful than we ever guessed.

Of mice, memories and music

Ten years ago, scientists who were also amateur musicians wanted to study how music affects people physiologically. Study participants listened to a two-minute track of each of six different music styles, with a two-minute break between each track. The researchers measured breathing rate, blood pressure and various other physiological changes. They were expecting to find the tempo, rhythm and melody of the music as well as people’s previous musical training and own musical preferences to have an effect. And they did find these things. But the biggest finding of the study was something the researchers didn’t even set out to look at: it was the two minutes of silence between tracks that had the biggest relaxation effect.

More recently, researchers studied the effects of various sounds on the brains of adult mice. The sounds of interest were music, baby mouse calls and white noise. Silence was used as a control for the experiment. Again, without trying to, this study showed the power of silence: none of the actual sounds had a long-term effect on the brain. But two hours of silence a day had a profound effect on the mice brains: they developed new brain cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for emotions and memory.

Quieting the mind

At some level we all know quiet is good for us. Sales of noise-cancelling headphones have sky-rocketed in recent years and Finland’s Tourist Board’s slogan ‘Silence, Please’ has been a massively successful way to market the country to the world. Most of us have a strong sense that time in nature will do us the world of good and this is at least partly due to the quiet that can often be found in natural places.

Your brain is always active, but when it’s not distracted by noise, or being required to focus on a particular task, it enters a state called the ‘default mode of brain function.’ This is when our brains get to do a bit of housekeeping: processing messages that come both from the outside world and from within ourselves. In silence, our brain has the opportunity to integrate these messages. We can reflect on who we are, empathise with others, reflect on our own wellbeing and think creatively. Silence allows us to connect with ourselves and replenishes our inner reserves.

Too much of a good thing?

So does all this mean the more quieter the silence, the better? Not so fast. The most silent place on earth, an anechoic chamber in Minnesota is so quiet that the background noise is measured as a negative. This means you can hear your heart beat, your stomach gurgle and sometimes even your nerves firing. It’s a place companies can test the volume of their products and where NASA can send astronauts to get a taste of the silence of space.

But if you think it would be a great place to hang out and grow some new brain cells, you’re wrong. Most people find the room deeply disorientating. Reports are that the longest anyone has even been able to cope with staying in the room is 45 minutes.

I reckon I’d rather head to Finland, thanks.

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  1. I’ve never felt the urge to create a bucket list until now…and that chamber has to be number one on the list. My simple mind is trying to compute something so silent that it records a negative. Does that mean the sound is being sucked out of the object? It would be like giving a voice to all the things we cannot hear – the patter of feet from an ant strolling by, the breath of a butterfly, the wink of a mouse.

  2. Pingback: Blink and you won’t miss a thing – Espresso Science

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