Through our driving need for more time, we light up the night, and unwittingly lose things that nourish our inner core. When we look up at the stars, we sense a deep connection to the universe; when we sink into our silence, we experience a deep connection to ourselves. When we lose them, we deprive ourselves of the fuel we need to be fully alive.
In 1859, the British nurse and social reformer Florence Nightingale wrote, “Unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that can be inflicted on sick or well.” Every careless clatter or banal bit of banter, Nightingale argued, can be a source of alarm, distress, and loss of sleep for recovering patients.
Recent research supports some of Nightingale’s claims. In the mid 20th century, epidemiologists discovered correlations between high blood pressure and chronic noise sources like highways and airports.
Studies of human physiology help explain how an invisible phenomenon can have such a pronounced physical effect. Sound waves vibrate the bones of the ear, which transmit movement to the snail-shaped cochlea. The body reacts immediately and powerfully to sound signals, even in the middle of deep sleep. The activation prompts an immediate release of stress hormones like cortisol. People who live in consistently loud environments often experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.
In 1997, a team of neuroscientists at Washington University was collecting brain scan data from test subjects during various mental tasks, like arithmetic and word games. One of the scientists, Gordon Shulman, noticed the background brain activity was most visible when the test subject was in a quiet room, doing absolutely nothing.
For decades, scientists had known that the brain’s “background” activity consumed the lion’s share of its energy. Difficult tasks like pattern recognition or arithmetic, only increased the brain’s energy consumption by a few percent. This suggested that by ignoring the background activity, neurologists might be overlooking something crucial. “When you do that,” neuroscientist Marcus Raichle explains, “most of the brain’s activities end up on the cutting room floor.”
In 2001, Raichle and his colleagues published a seminal paper that defined a “default mode” of brain function—situated in the prefrontal cortex, active in cognitive actions—implying a “resting” brain is perpetually active, gathering and evaluating information.
In 2006, Luciano Bernardi did a study of the physiological effects of music.
“We didn’t think about the effect of silence.,” he says. “That was not meant to be studied specifically.” “During almost all sorts of music, there was a physiological change compatible with a condition of arousal,” he explains. This effect made sense. But the more striking finding appeared between musical tracks. Bernardi and his colleagues discovered that randomly inserted stretches of silence also had a drastic effect, but in the opposite direction.
The blank pauses that Bernardi considered irrelevant, became the most interesting object of study. The affect of silence seemed to be heightened by contrasts, maybe because it gave test subjects a release from careful attention. “Perhaps the arousal is something that concentrates the mind in one direction, so that when there is nothing more arousing, then you have deeper relaxation,” he says.
As science is discovering how beneficial the absence of noise is to optimum brain function, the amount of noise we produce is reaching epidemic proportions.
The 2011 World Health Organization report called noise pollution a “modern plague,”. The World Health Organization tried to quantify the health burden of noise in Europe. It concluded that the 340 million residents of western Europe annually lost a million years of healthy life because of noise. Concluding that “there is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population.”
A study that was published in 2002 in Psychological Science (Vol. 13, No. 9) examined the effects that the relocation of Munich’s airport had on children’s health and cognition. Gary W. Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University notes that children who are exposed to noise develop a stress response that causes them to ignore the noise. What is of interest is that these children not only ignored harmful stimuli, they also ignored stimuli that they should be paying attention to, such as speech.
“This study is among the strongest, probably the most definitive proof that noise – even at levels that do not produce any hearing damage – causes stress and is harmful to humans,” Evans says.
Silence seems to have the opposite effect of the brain to noise. While noise may cause stress and tension silence releases tension in the brain and body.
In 2013 a Duke University regenerative biologist, Imke Kirste was examining the effects of sounds in the brains of adult mice. Her experiment, Kirste found that two hours of silence per day prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the brain region related to the formation of memory, involving the senses. The total absence of input was having a more pronounced effect than any sort of input tested.
“We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system.”
- Silence relieves stress and tension.
- Silence replenishes our mental resources.
According to attention restoration theory, the brain can restore its finite cognitive resources when we’re in environments with lower levels of sensory input than usual.
- In silence, we can tap into the brain’s default mode network.
Default mode activity helps us think deeply and creatively. As Herman Melville once wrote, “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”
- Silence can grow the brain by regenerating brain cells.
This one of the aims of brain training and mindfulness practices. To allow you to learn to still your churning thoughts. By learning to control your brain, you will grow to love your silence, and use it as a vital tool whenever you need to replenish your energy and calm.
Thinking Matters is brought to you by Annette Jahnel. If you would like to start training your brain to be silent so that you may get the full health benefits there of the best it can be, contact the Essential Knowledge co.
This program drew heavily from the following articles.
Remember that your thoughts shape your life and our collective thoughts shape the world in which we live, make a positive contribution.