Stop what you’re doing right now and just listen. Do you hear traffic, construction machinery, sirens, phones, televisions, kids screaming, dogs barking, or loud music? If so, you’re like many other people in today’s modern world.
All the conveniences of technological progress have come at a cost. We have traded physical ease for one of our most precious commodities: silence. The opposite of silence is noise, a word from Latin for pain or distress.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says that most urban community noise comes from road traffic. Noise pollution can cause some very serious side effects:
“Environmental noise exposure is responsible for a range of health effects, including increased risk of ischaemic heart disease as well as sleep disturbance, cognitive impairment among children, annoyance, stress-related mental health risks, and tinnitus.”
The WHO also found that children who live in areas with high aircraft noise “have delayed reading ages, poor attention levels, and high stress levels.”
Not all noise comes from the outside. Have you ever considered how many sounds we manufacture inside our own skulls? Zen Buddhists call the unceasing mental chatter most of us take for granted the “monkey mind” and practice intentionally quieting it.
It turns out that silence is important for our health and well-being for five good reasons:
- Stress relief.
Hillel Schwartz quoted Florence Nightingale in his book Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond. Even in 1859, the famous British nurse realized that “unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that can be inflicted on sick or well.” She linked loud sounds to distress, sleep loss, and alarm in patients trying to get well.
Ms. Nightingale was right on track over a hundred years ago. Today, noisy conditions have been linked to high blood pressure, heart attacks, hearing impairments, and a decline in overall health. Stress levels rise when the brain responds to loud sounds by activating the amygdala (emotional and memory processor) which then produces the “fight or flight” stress hormone cortisol.
An interesting 2005 study found that even listening passively to music “accelerates breathing rate and increases blood pressure, [and] heart rate” – but hearing two minutes of silence “decreased blood pressure, minute ventilation, [and] heart rate.” Even more calming was five minutes of quiet relaxation.
- Sleep better.
Who would have guessed that spending a few reflective minutes a day in a quiet environment could relieve insomnia? A 2015 study on older adults with sleep disturbances revealed that a “structured mindfulness meditation program” was an effective short-term solution “to remediate moderate sleep problems and sleep-related daytime impairment in older adults.”
Mindful meditation combines focusing on breathing while keeping the mind in the present rather than the past or future. This effectively stops the monkey mind and paves the way for physiological relaxation.
- Regenerate brain cells.
Researchers in 2013 tested the effects of ambient noise, white noise, pup calls, and silence on mice. To their surprise, silence and “ethologically irrelevant sounds (Mozart)” caused more new brain cells to form than natural sounds like pup calls. They also reported that only silence – “the complete absence of auditory input” – was the only stimulus that created a strong growth response in 7-day-old new neurons.
The hippocampus, a vital cerebral area, associated with long-term memories and location memory (where you left the car keys), develops new cells after two quiet hours a day.
Further investigation is being done on using daily silence to treat depression and Alzheimer’s since they, too, are thought to arise from decreased rates of neural regeneration in the hippocampus.
- Heighten sensitivity and empathy.
One hundred scientists attended a retreat center in rural Massachusetts where they practiced silent meditation for one week. They also were instructed not to read, write, or make eye-contact with each other.
At the end of the retreat, many of the scientists said that experiencing seven days in silence was “grueling” and one of the most difficult things ever done. But they also turned their attention to other senses: sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, intentions, and emotions.
Another key region in the brain is the right supramarginal gyrus, which is in charge of emotional sensitivity and empathy. Silence lets this part of the brain get some R&R – rest and reactivation, in this case. This leads to increased empathy.
- Trigger your brain’s default mode network.
Researchers discovered that long-term meditation “may reduce self-related thinking and mind wandering more than another active task.” They concluded that “increased DMN activity may interfere with cognitive performance, and decreased DMN activity is associated with improved performance.” Increased DMN activity was also associated with depression, anxiety, and addiction.
Mind-wandering and self-related mental processing – thinking about yourself – lead to ruminative thinking (churning the same ideas over and over in your mind) which is thought to lower esteem and well-being.
Meditation reduces DMN activity and improves attention and working memory performance, promotes positive health outcomes, and can be useful for treating addiction, pain, anxiety, and depression.
As you can tell, there is not only a lot of wisdom but growing scientific evidence, behind the old saying, “Silence is Golden.”