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.
“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.
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.
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:
“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.