Silence is nothing – by nature. It’s coded more by what it isn’t than what it is. Silence is not noise. It is an absence.
And recently, scientists and researchers have hit on another dormant truth exacerbated and exposed by the pandemic: We make a LOT of noise.
Not only do we seem to complain about it an awful lot, but it’s also not good for us.
Jackhammers. Phone notifications. Horn honking. TV shows streaming. Music playing. Arguing neighbors through apartment walls. Dishes clanking. The rowdy bar around the corner.
Throughout the last year, people who live with noise have reported over and over again that they just want some peace and quiet.
And that’s not just a metaphor for normalcy – physically, emotionally, and spiritually, excess and relentless noise is hurting us.
I invite you to think of how recently you last heard your own voice… how long since you engaged in the exercise of containing the sound of your voice as long as possible.
Sometimes it just isn’t possible to stay silent, or to command silence around us – or at least, we aren’t aware of how high the stakes are and thus haven’t implemented silent times and spaces in our lives.
But the science is clear as a crisp bell and certain as the ringing is to come to a stop: We made this noisy world, and we hate it because it makes our brains hurt.
Let’s take a look at the machinations…
The Brain’s Deliberation – No to Noise and Yes to Its Absence
Those are two separate and distinct points. The absence of noise has been shown to increase neurogenesis, or the production of neurons in the brain, and the presence of too much noise does its own damage.
Hearing impairment, which used to be limited to impossibly loud concerts but now can have a similar effect simply by compounding the amount and volume of noise we hear daily, is the more obvious kind of damage noise pollution can cause.
Too much noise raises blood pressure, increases the risk of heart attacks, and speeds up heart rates.
And from an evolutionary standpoint, loud noises stress us out.
The moment the ears send the message to the brain that they’ve come across a loud sound, the amygdala decides we need cortisol – in case of danger, of course – and triggers its release.
So if you’ve had a hard time releasing tension lately… you may be awash in noise with no way to signal to your brain that there’s no danger, it’s just construction across the street.
Lowering the sensory input of our brains helps them to replenish resources. In other words, when we turn the faucet off, the sink has a chance to drain and the tank can heat more water.
Plus, as we said, the absence of noise literally grows brain cells. During one particular experiment with mice, the researchers discovered that when given just two hours of silence per day, the neuron population in the hippocampus – associated with memory, learning, and emotion – surged!
But knowing there’s a problem doesn’t always make the solution forthcoming.
Too Many Factors
Noise pollution? Bad. Silence? Good. However, there’s space in between.
If you grew up in an urban center, for example, and your brain understood that honking during rush hour didn’t spell danger, your nervous system’s response would likely be lighter than a rural transplant.
And how much noise is enough? Would three children chattering away, whooping and hollering, have the same neurological effect as hearing the dings and pings of social media notifications, emails, phone calls, and the like?
While industrial noise exposure has dampened a bit over the last 30 years – like factories, construction, and road and air traffic – social noise exposure has tripled.
More research is required to accurately measure baseline resilience and determine triggering noises for various lifestyles, but at least know this: Silence can and should be a health priority for all of us.
And Just How Do We Do That?
By situating its presence as a requisite component of human experience, rather than a luxury elective.
Silence isn’t a “treat” for parents who’ve had a long day or asthetics living in the mountains – it’s for everyone.
And according to the scientific community, we should be aiming for two hours of silence per day.
If that sounds absolutely impossible, don’t panic – any attempt at giving your ears and brain a break is better than none.
It doesn’t have to be consecutive either… but if it can be, and the only thing standing between you and two hours of silence is a culturally ingrained aversion to stillness and entertainment-free existence…
This is your reminder: Your nervous system wants a break!
- Taking a walk without your phone and music.
- Give yourself some eco-therapy.
- Get up an hour earlier than the rest of your household… and don’t make a sound.
- Meditate – even if you have trouble tapping into the meditation brain waves, your brain will thank you for the peace!
- Turn off the sound on your phone notifications.
- Do your regular chores without the background noise – no comfort show, no stimulating podcast, no R&B to get you dancing. (If that makes those chores unbearable, mix it up with silent time and fun time.)