The Positive Effects Of Silence

20160106 pier beach scan edit c

In recent years researchers have highlighted the peculiar power of silence to calm our bodies, turn up the volume on our inner thoughts, and attune our connection to the world.

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.

Surprisingly, recent research supports some of Nightingale’s zealous claims. In the mid 20th century, epidemiologists discovered correlations between high blood pressure and chronic noise sources like highways and airports. Later research seemed to link noise to increased rates of sleep loss, heart disease, and tinnitus. (It’s this line of research that hatched the 1960s-era notion of “noise pollution,” a name that implicitly refashions transitory noises as toxic and long-lasting.)
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 cochlea converts physical vibrations into electrical signals that the brain receives. The body reacts immediately and powerfully to these signals, even in the middle of deep sleep. Neurophysiological research suggests that noises first activate the amygdalae, clusters of neurons located in the temporal lobes of the brain, associated with memory formation and emotion. 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 2011, the World Health Organization tried to quantify its health burden in Europe. It concluded that the 340 million residents of western Europe—roughly the same population as that of the United States—annually lost a million years of healthy life because of noise. It even argued that 3,000 heart disease deaths were, at their root, the result of excessive noise.

Silence first began to appear in scientific research as a control or baseline, against which scientists compare the effects of noise or music. Researchers have mainly studied it by accident, as physician Luciano Bernardi did in a 2006 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.”  He was in for a quiet surprise. Bernardi observed physiological metrics for two dozen test subjects while they listened to six musical tracks. He found that the impacts of music could be read directly in the bloodstream, via changes in blood pressure, carbon dioxide, and circulation in the brain. (Bernardi and his son are both amateur musicians, and they wanted to explore a shared interest.) “During almost all sorts of music, there was a physiological change compatible with a condition of arousal,” he explains.
This effect made sense, given that active listening requires alertness and attention. 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. In fact, two-minute silent pauses proved far more relaxing than either “relaxing” music or a longer silence played before the experiment started.
The blank pauses that Bernardi considered irrelevant, in other words, became the most interesting object of study.
– excerpts from ‘This Is Your Brain on Silence’, Daniel A Gross, Nautilus, 7 July 2016

Illustrations and quotes in the book ‘Dysconnected‘ encourage us to consider the ways in which mobile devices have interfered with our capacity to sit silently. See here.

Paddling 1800 km To Get Away From iPads

20160407 three couch wash edit c

“Two young families from Vancouver found an extreme way to get their kids to unplug this summer — paddling 1,800 kilometres down the Mackenzie River.
Kevin Vallely, his wife, and their two young daughters left their lives and iPads behind to paddle from Hay River to Inuvik, N.W.T., this summer. They teamed up with another couple and their nine-year-old son to make the epic journey.”

Arianna hasn’t forgotten about her screen.
“Yeah, I kinda wish I had an iPad, but we’re out here now so…” she trails off, as her father laughs in the background. But she admits it’s gotten easier to unplug as the trip goes on.

“The wonderful thing I’m discovering with the people here is that they’re generous with their time and they’re generous with what they have. They share,” he says.
“These are the values I want my kids to understand and hold dear.”
Despite going “unplugged,” Vallely is blogging about their adventure and updating an Instagram account along the way.

– from ‘Extreme unplugging: B.C. families paddle Mackenzie River to get kids away from screens’, Katherine Barton, CBC, 23 Jul 2016

Walking Under The Influence Of Texting

20160314 street selfie scan c

Texting on your phone while walking alters posture and balance:
Scientists studied the effect of mobile phone use on body movement while walking in 26 healthy individuals. Each person walked at a comfortable pace in a straight line over a distance of approximately 8.5 m while doing one of three tasks: walking without the use of a phone, reading text on a mobile phone, or typing text on a mobile phone. The body’s movement was evaluated using a three-dimensional movement analysis system. … The results show that, not surprisingly, texting, and to a lesser extent reading, modified the body’s movement while walking. In comparison with normal walking, when participants were writing text, participants walked slower, deviated more from a straight line and moved their neck less than when reading text. … This may impact the safety of people who text and walk at the same time.
– from ‘Texting changes the way we walk’,, 22 Jan 2014
Similar findings in another study the following year:
People walk slower, swerve when texting while distracted,, 29 July 2015

Texting on your phone while walking increases risk of injury:
A study from Ohio State University found that the number of pedestrian ER visits for injuries related to cell phones tripled between 2004 and 2010 — even though the total number of pedestrian injuries dropped during that period. The study also found that the age group most at risk for cell-phone related injuries while walking are adults under 30 — chiefly those between the ages of 16 and 25. …
Texting and walking is a known danger, but Dietrich Jehle, professor of emergency medicine at the University at Buffalo, says distracted walking results in more injuries per mile than distracted driving.
Consequences include bumping into walls, falling down stairs, tripping over clutter or stepping into traffic. The issue is so common that in London, bumpers were placed onto light posts along a frequented avenue to prevent people from slamming into them.
“When texting, you’re not as in control with the complex actions of walking,” says Jehle, MD, who is also an attending physician at Erie County Medical Center, a regional trauma center in Western New York. “While talking on the phone is a distraction, texting is much more dangerous because you can’t see the path in front of you.”
Though injuries from car accidents involving texting are often more severe, physical harm resulting from texting and walking occurs more frequently, Jehle says.
Jehle explains that pedestrians face three types of distraction: manual, in which they are doing something else; visual, where they see something else; and cognitive, in which their mind is somewhere else.
Tens of thousands of pedestrians are treated in emergency rooms across the nation each year, and Jehle believes as many as 10 percent of those visits result from accidents involving cell phones. He says the number of mishaps involving texting and walking is likely higher than official statistics suggest, as patients tend to underreport information about themselves when it involves a behavior that is embarrassing.

– from University at Buffalo. “Think it’s safe to type a quick text while walking? Think again.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 March 2014.

“Is the internet making us ill?” – The Guardian

Selfie with Bull

The following excerpts from ‘Is the internet making us ill?’, Hannah Jane Parkinson, The Guardian, 11 July 2016:

A study from Swansea and Milan universities finds that frequent internet use (“mild internet addiction”) can make us 30% more susceptible to the flu. …

The recorded number of selfie-related deaths in 2015 reached 12. This included: teenagers who perished when snapping a pic with a grenade (the picture was discovered saved to the camera roll) and the man who was gored to death by a bull attempting to get the animal in shot. …

43% of us admit to having walked into something while looking at our phones. And 60% of us have dropped our phone on our faces while texting or duck-facing in bed. …

Pokémon Go has already led to bizarre incidents. To wit, this amazing sentence in a BBC report: “Nineteen-year-old Shayla Wiggins, from Wyoming, was told to find a Pokemon in a natural water source but instead found a man’s corpse.”

Reliving One’s Memories In Virtual Reality – “Twenty years from now, when my son is an adult, I’ll be able to put on some goggles and sit across the breakfast table from him as a little boy.”


Virtual Reality [VR] capture and replay devices have the potential to allow one to relive one’s memories in a way that is far more vivid than looking through the family photo album. But what of the downside? Could people get addicted to ‘living’ periods from their past?
The following excerpt (and the image) from ‘Is Virtual Reality for Our Own Memories Really Such a Great Idea?’, by G. Clay Whittaker at The Daily Beast, 4 July 2016:

“At a recent Cannes Lions Festival appearance, Google VR vice president Clay Bavor said some interesting things about the future of VR, as a way for users to start reliving their own life experiences. It starts with the close connection between memory and experience. “When you look at your brain under an fMRI,” he said, “remembering and experiencing look very similar.”

Bavor talked about how, if your home was on fire, you’d be saving photo albums and hard drives with photos because of their value: the experience. “You can remember someone you love” is how he phrased it, someone “who might be far away or who you’ve lost.”

And for him and the many others writing and developing the VR world, that’s the primary goal: to step back into that memory years later.

Bavor went on to discuss his own experiences with a new prototype camera for recording VR.

“I’ve recorded similar things too, little fleeting moments,” he said. “Sitting with my grandmother in her home. Having breakfast with my son. Here’s the thing: A few years from now, when my grandmother is gone, I’ll be able to sit with her. Twenty years from now, when my son is an adult, I’ll be able to put on some goggles and sit across the breakfast table from him as a little boy.”

Recreating the past is what we do. It’s how we remember what we lost, what we had. It’s how we find inspiration to get through bad times. But being able to call up an experience with the push of a button carries some dangers that memories don’t. We could get lost in the experiences, in an addictive way.

I know that sounds like science fiction, and yes, here’s where the Matrix reference would go. Feel free to make your own associations. But as a counterpoint to the skepticism, the more apt comparison isn’t with that film so much as Vanilla Sky, or perhaps Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. You know, tales of a virtual world people want to stay inside of.

VR could be a good thing. There are benefits to stepping back in time: One can think of many ways this sort of research can help Alzheimer’s patients or those with some form of brain damage to regain their possession of their own mind. It’s not a big leap to think that creating a virtual space to experience the past would help jar someone to access those moments. Plenty of anecdotal cases have shown music and pictures to help.

But what about the recreational side? What happens when flipping through a photo album becomes a multi-hour lounge on the couch? It’s even easier to picture a grieving parent plugging in a headset on the nightstand and never leaving bed—we’ve all known someone who probably wouldn’t have gotten out of a bout of depression had they had access to this kind of technology. Addiction, dependence: The past could easily become the new drug of choice for self-medication.

And say what you will about how technology has affected interpersonal communications—how youth and adolescence have been harmed by an unforgiving internet that remembers everything you do—but imagine how much more embarrassing and difficult life could become to navigate when your peers can literally step into that moment you were embarrassed and relive it over and over for amusement.

Opposing Opinions: “When information overloads us, most people are still wise enough to use the power of the ‘Off’ button to gain some peace, or perhaps they take a beach walk or tend their gardens.”


Alvin Toffler died June 27 2016.
In his book ‘Future Shock’ (1970), he warned of the dangers of technology delivering too much information. Some disagreed:

“Like millions of people I was profoundly disturbed when I read Future Shock by Alvin Toffler. He looked at media and technology of 1970, thought about where it was going and painted a bleak future.
He coined the term “information overload,” and painted a picture of people who were isolated and depressed, cut off from human intimacy by a relentless fire hose of messages and data barraging us relentlessly.
The future he was looking at in 1970 is now. And yes, we live in an era of data fire hoses and sometimes we all feel either overwhelmed or trapped. Technology is far more ubiquitous than Toffler could possibly have imagined. Hell, it’s probably more ubiquitous than Bill Gates or Steve Jobs ever imagined.
But we are not isolated by it. And when the information overloads us, most people are still wise enough to use the power of the ‘Off’ button to gain some peace, or perhaps they take a beach walk or tend their gardens.”

– from ‘Future Shock: Why Alvin Toffler Was Wrong’, Shel Israel, Forbes, 21 Jun 2012[thanks to Rick for the link]

Who was more correct, Alvin Toffler or Shel Israel ?