Rediscover the serenity of silence

We live in a loud and distracting world, where silence is increasingly difficult to experience. This may be damaging both our spiritual and physical health. A 2011 World Health Organisation report called noise pollution a “modern plague,” concluding that “there is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population.”

We’re constantly filling our ears with music, TV and radio news, podcasts and, of course, the multitude of sounds that we create nonstop in our own heads. Think about it: How many moments each day do you spend in total silence, asks Carolyn Gregoire is a Senior Writer for The Huffington Post. As our internal and external environments become louder, more people are beginning to seek out silence, whether through a practice of sitting quietly for 10 minutes every morning or heading off to a 10-day silent retreat. Gregoire gives four science-backed ways that silence is good for the brain — and how making time for it can make you feel less stressed, more focused and creative.

Silence relieves stress and tension. Florence Nightingale, the 19th century British nurse wrote that “unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that can be inflicted on sick or well.” Nightgale argued that needless sounds could cause distress, sleep loss and alarm for recovering patients. Just as too much noise can cause stress and tension, research has found that silence has the opposite effect, releasing tension in the brain and body. One scientific article showed that two minutes of silence is more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music.

Silence replenishes our mental resources. In our everyday lives, sensory input is being thrown at us from every angle. When we can finally get away from these sonic disruptions, our brain’s attention centers have the opportunity to restore themselves. The ceaseless demands of modern life put a significant burden on the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is involved in high-order thinking, decision-making and problem-solving. Therefore, our attentional resources become drained. But attention restoration theory says, the brain can restore its finite cognitive resources when we are silent. Then the brain lets down its sensory guard.

In silence, we can tap into the brain’s default mode network, which is usually only activated when we engage in what scientists refer to as “self-generated cognition,” such as daydreaming, meditating, fantasising a the future or just letting our minds wander. When the brain is idle and disengaged from external stimuli, we can finally tap into our inner stream of thoughts, emotions, memories and ideas. Engaging this network helps us to make meaning out of our experiences, empathise with others, be more creative and reflect on our own mental and emotional states. In order to do this, it’s necessary to break away from the distractions that keep us lingering on the shallow surfaces of the mind. Silence is one way of getting there. So Herman Melville once wrote, “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”

Getting quiet can regenerate brain cells. A 2013 study on mice, involved comparing the effects of ambient noise on the rodents’ brains. They found that two hours of silence daily led to the development of new cells in the hippocampus, a key brain region associated with learning, memory and emotion. Can we rediscover the sanctity and serenity of silence both externally and internally? It can heal us and foster our creativity.

(The writer is professor of science, philosophy & author of Gratefully and Gracefully)