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How Silence Affects Our Brains in A Good Way, Science Explains

How Silence Affects Our Brains in A Good Way, Science Explains

In a world that’s increasingly busy and loud, silence sells. Like clean water, silence is a resource, and can, in fact, be used as a selling point. Consider, your laptop that runs without a peep, meditation retreats, holiday getaways to remote locations, or those noise canceling headphones. Silence is the glue that binds them together.

Silence Has Been Studied by Accident

Over the years, research has emphasized how silence can calm our bodies, improve our connection with the world and actually increase the “noise” of our inner thoughts, with the majority of the research focusing on noise when coming to these conclusions, not silence.

Yes, most researchers have studied silence by accident. For instance, in a 2006 Study, where the physiological effects of music were studied, Luciano Bernardi said the following in Nautilus:

“We didn’t think about the effects of silence. That was not meant to be studied specifically.”

Nevertheless, what were the effects of silence on our brains in these studies?

Two Minutes of Silence Heightened Arousal

In the aforementioned study, Bernardi observed physiological metrics for two dozen subjects when they listened to six songs. According to Bernardi:

“During almost all sorts of music, there was a physiological change compatible with a condition of arousal.”

But what was even more surprising, was what happened when there were silent pauses – two minutes of silence proved far more relaxing than peaceful music or a longer silence played before the experiment started. One of his main findings – silence is heightened by contrasts – is supported by Neurological research, in a study by Michael Wehr in 2010.

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Silence Affects Our Auditory Cortex

The 2010 study by Michael Wehr who was observing the brains of mice during short bursts of sound produced some surprising results. Whilst a burst of sound causes the auditory cortex (that part of the brain responsible for processing sound information), to light up, silence also causes a change. A separate network of neurons in the auditory cortex fire up. Wehr says:

“When a sound suddenly stops, that’s an event just as surely as when a sound starts.”

What though happens the moment the auditory cortex fires up?

How Silence Affects our Auditory Cortex: Cell Development

This question was examined by a Duke University regenerative Biologist, Imke Kirste. In the 2013 study, she was analyzing the effects sound has on the brains of adult mice. Four groups of mice were exposed to different auditory stimuli: music, baby mouse noises, white noise, and silence.

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The silence was the control, and as with many previous studies, its effect was considered negligible. Once again though the findings were an eye-opener. All the sounds had a short-term neurological effect, but what about silence?

Two hours of silence per day led to cell development in the hippocampus – the brain area responsible for memory formation and emotions. This baffled Kirste. But after some thought she came to the following conclusion – the absence of noise was so artificial and alarming that it caused hyper-alertness in the mice.

Whilst new cell development isn’t always good for health, in this instance, the cells were becoming functioning neurons (a specialized cell that transmits nerve impulses; also known as a nerve cell). Kirste went on to say:

“We saw that silence is really helping the newly generated cells differentiate into neurons and integrate into the system.”

Silence Amplifies Self-Reflection

Not only does silence aid in cell generation, but it also aids in self-reflection. We all have what is known as the “default mode” of brain function – found in the prefrontal cortex (located in the front of the brain and responsible for abstract thinking, thought analysis and regulating thinking).

The default mode is always active, receiving and analyzing information. For example, the ability to detect danger happens automatically in this part of the brain. This default mode is also highly active during self-reflection (understanding ourselves) according to Joseph Moran who published a paper titled “What can the organization of the brain’s default mode network tell us about self-knowledge?”

According to Moran and colleagues, when the brain is in this resting mode, it is able to integrate internal and external information into a conscious workspace. When there is silence, your conscious workspace has greater freedom to process the internal and external information, allowing you to better discover your place in the world. Silence amplifies self-reflection.

And perhaps Noora Vikman, an ethnomusicologist (someone who studies music in a cultural context) and silence consultant for Finland’s marketers sums it up best:

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“If you want to know yourself you have to be with yourself, and discuss with yourself, be able to talk with yourself.”

Silence then truly is golden. It changes your brain. It changes your life.

More by this author

Nick Darlington

Nick is a Multipotentialite, an entrepreneur, a blogger and a traveler.

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Last Updated on June 6, 2019

Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

In 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board ran a campaign that used silence as a marketing ‘product’. They sought to entice people to visit Finland and experience the beauty of this silent land. They released a series of photographs of single figures in the nature and used the slogan “Silence, Please”. A tag line was added by Simon Anholt, an international country branding consultant, “No talking, but action.”

Eva Kiviranta the manager of the social media for VisitFinland.com said: “We decided, instead of saying that it’s really empty and really quiet and nobody is talking about anything here, let’s embrace it and make it a good thing”.

Finland may be on to something very big. You could be seeing the very beginnings of using silence as a selling point as silence may be becoming more and more attractive. As the world around becomes increasingly loud and cluttered you may find yourself seeking out the reprieve that silent places and silence have to offer. This may be a wise move as studies are showing that silence is much more important to your brains than you might think.

Regenerated brain cells may be just a matter of silence.

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     A 2013 study on mice published in the journal Brain, Structure and Function used differed types of noise and silence and monitored the effect the sound and silence had on the brains of the mice.[1] The silence was intended to be the control in the study but what they found was surprising. The scientists discovered that when the 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.

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    The growth of new cells in the brain does not necessarily translate to tangible health benefits. However, in this instance, researcher Imke Kirste says that the cells appeared to become functioning neurons.

    “We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system.”

    In this sense silence can quite literally grow your brain.

    The brain is actively internalizing and evaluating information during silence

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      A 2001 study defined a “default mode” of brain function that showed that even when the brain was “resting” it was perpetually active internalizing and evaluating information.

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      Follow-up research found that the default mode is also used during the process of self-reflection. In 2013, in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Joseph Moran et al. wrote, the brain’s default mode network “is observed most closely during the psychological task of reflecting on one’s personalities and characteristics (self-reflection), rather than during self-recognition, thinking of the self-concept, or thinking about self-esteem, for example.

      “When the brain rests it is able to integrate internal and external information into “a conscious workspace,” said Moran and colleagues.

      When you are not distracted by noise or goal-orientated tasks, there appears to be a quiet time that allows your conscious workspace to process things. During these periods of silence, your brain has the freedom it needs to discover its place in your internal and external world.

      The default mode helps you think about profound things in an imaginative way.

      As Herman Melville once wrote,[2]

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      “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”

      Silence relieves stress and tension.

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        It has been found that noise can have a pronounced physical effect on our brains resulting in elevated levels of stress hormones. The sound waves reach the brain as electrical signals via the ear. The body reacts to these signals even if it is sleeping. It is thought that the amygdalae (located in the temporal lobes of the brain) which is associated with memory formation and emotion is activated and this causes a release of stress hormones. If you live in a consistently noisy environment that you are likely to experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.

        A study that was published in 2002 in Psychological Science (Vol. 13, No. 9) examined the effects that the relocation of Munich’s airport had on children’s health and cognition. Gary W. Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University notes that children who are exposed to noise develop a stress response that causes them to ignore the noise. What is of interest is that these children not only ignored harmful stimuli they also ignored stimuli that they should be paying attention to such as speech. 

        “This study is among the strongest, probably the most definitive proof that noise – even at levels that do not produce any hearing damage – causes stress and is harmful to humans,” Evans says.[3]

        Silence seems to have the opposite effect of the brain to noise. While noise may cause stress and tension silence releases tension in the brain and body. A study published in the journal Heart discovered that two minutes of silence can prove to be even more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music. They based these findings of changes they noticed in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.[4]

        Silence replenishes our cognitive resources.

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          The effect that noise pollution can have on cognitive task performance has been extensively studied. It has been found that noise harms task performance at work and school. It can also be the cause of decreased motivation and an increase in error making.  The cognitive functions most strongly affected by noise are reading attention, memory and problem solving.

          Studies have also concluded that children exposed to households or classrooms near airplane flight paths, railways or highways have lower reading scores and are slower in their development of cognitive and language skills.

          But it is not all bad news. 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.[5]

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          Summation

          Traveling to Finland may just well be on your list of things to do. There you may find the silence you need to help your brain. Or, if Finland is a bit out of reach for now, you could simply take a quiet walk in a peaceful place in your neighborhood. This might prove to do you and your brain a world of good.

          Featured photo credit: Angelina Litvin via unsplash.com

          Reference

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