The Positive Effects Of Silence

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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.

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