It is a sad fact that there are almost no places left in the World where we can experience true silence.
Some cultures are more familiar with silence than others, such as the Finns that live in the country with the biggest percentage of forests in Europe. In 2011 they launched a very successful marketing campaign using the slogan “Silence, Please” featuring stunning photos of nature landscapes and the value silence had in making their country unique.
So why is silence so important to our wellbeing and mental health?
Research shows how silence relieves stress and tension, while noise can have a pronounced physical effect on our brains resulting in elevated levels of stress hormones. The cognitive functions most strongly affected by noise are reading attention, memory and problem solving. In April 2011 the World Health Organization and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre presented a report explaining how steady exposure to “noise pollution” may lead to higher blood pressure and fatal heart attacks. As the Latin origin of word “noise” reminds us, it means either queasiness or pain.
It is possible for the brain to restore its finite cognitive resources. According to the attention restoration theory, when you are in an environment with lower levels of sensory input the brain can ‘recover’ some of its cognitive abilities. In silence the brain is able to let down its sensory guard and restore some of what has been ‘lost’ through excess noise.
In a 2013 study on mice published in the journal Brain, Structure and Function showed that when mice were exposed to two hours of silence per day they developed new cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning. Furthermore, the researchers noticed how these cells appeared to become functioning neurons and how, when exposed to silence, the brain literally grew.
In the human brain a 2001 study defined a “default mode” of brain function that showed that even when the brain was “resting” it was perpetually active internalising and evaluating information. Proving that when you are not distracted by noise or tasks, there appears to be a quiet time that allows your conscious mind to process things. It is especially during these periods of silence, that your brain has the freedom to reflect about profound things in an imaginative way.
Finally, you can discover the impact silence has in our lives in the newly released film ‘The Sound of Silence’. It is about a successful “house tuner” in New York City who calibrates the sound in people’s homes in order to adjust their moods.
So make space in your everyday for silence and treasure those moments since, as Herman Melville once wrote, “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”
Author: Sarah Speziali, Chief Therapist at InsideOut