Silence. It can be “deafening” when your ideas are met with disapproval, or when people expect you to act or speak—and you don’t. It can be “golden” when it’s wise to say nothing at all. It can also be “listened to,” if the folk-rock singers Simon and Garfunkel are correct.
It turns out that they are.
A new report out of Maryland’s Johns Hopkins University concludes that there’s at least one thing that we hear that isn’t a sound: the silence that happens when sounds go away. In other words, silence is something that can literally be heard.
And one of the best places to hear it is in nature.
The perception of absence
Silence—or the absence of sound—is something you can hear, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University, who recently published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The notion of whether people can hear more than sounds has puzzled philosophers for centuries. Until now, however, there hasn’t been a scientific study aimed directly at whether silence is something we can genuinely perceive. So, the university scientists decided to investigate whether our brains treat silences the way they treat sounds. If they could get the same auditory illusions with silences as they get with sounds, the researchers reasoned, then that may be evidence that we do hear silence, after all.
Like optical illusions that trick what people see, auditory illusions can make people hear periods of time as being longer or shorter than they truly are. One example is known as the “one-is-more illusion,” where one, continuous beep seems longer than two, consecutive beeps, even when both are equal in length.
In tests, 1,000 participants were asked to listen to soundscapes that simulated the din of busy markets, restaurants and train stations. The researchers swapped the sounds in the one-is-more illusion with moments of silence, reworking auditory illusions into what they dubbed the “one-silence-is-more illusion.” You can hear an example of the tests in the video below.
The idea wasn’t simply that these silences made people experience illusions, the researchers said. It was that the same illusions that scientists thought could only be triggered with sounds worked just as well when the sounds were replaced by silences. People thought one, long moment of silence was longer than two, short moments of silence. The fact that these silence-based illusions produced exactly the same results as their sound-based counterparts suggests that people hear silence just like they hear sounds.
The power of silence
Silence is a powerful state. Scientists say that too much noise can send our bodies into overdrive, continuously pumping out stress hormones. Repeated exposure to noise can eventually lead to various physical problems, as well as greatly reduce our mental health and well-being.
In fact, epidemiologists discovered correlations between high blood pressure and chronic noise sources, such as airports and highways. Later research linked noise to increased rates of heart disease, sleep loss and tinnitus. This line of research eventually hatched the phrase “noise pollution.”
Here are some of the ways silence can benefit your health:
Encourages inner calm. Silence provides a space that promotes a sense of mental clarity, peace and tranquility. When struggling with the stresses of daily life, it can be difficult to stay calm. The American Psychological Association reports that approximately 77 percent of people in the U.S. say they experience physical symptoms of stress in their everyday lives. A period of silence each day provides an opportunity for relaxation and a reduction in stress levels.
Enhances concentration. Silence creates an environment conducive to concentration, allowing you to perform tasks more effectively. Another reason why silence should become an important part of your day is the way it facilitates your ability to focus.
Boosts creativity. Embracing silence can stimulate your imagination and inspire innovative thinking, unlocking new ideas and solutions. Some studies have shown how important silence is to the success of individuals as they move through the creative process. Visionaries such as Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton worked alone almost exclusively for most of their lives. Psychoanalysts say that the best creative work is often completed in solitude or after a period of solitude.
Improves learning. Research suggests that excessive noise hinders learning, making silence essential for optimal information processing and knowledge retention. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has reported that the level of noise exposure affects a child’s abilities as a student. As children are exposed to more noise, their school performance suffers; and they experience greater struggles with concentration levels. In the 21st century, children’s exposure to cell phones, tablets and video games has increased levels of hearing impairments, which affects the ability to learn and develop.
Cultivates patience. Learning to enjoy silence encourages mindfulness and patience, allowing you to navigate challenges with a greater sense of composure. In today’s fast-paced world, almost everyone has a short fuse for frustration. When you learn to savor silent moments, you’ll have more patience in daily hassles, such as in long lines at the store or in traffic jams.
Increases productivity. Embracing moments of silence can help increase resourcefulness by reducing distractions and improving task efficiency. Doing nothing and remaining silent has been reported to increase the production of new brain cells, which could make you more productive in the future. And taking time to daydream may improve your productivity tenfold.
Heightens self-awareness. By immersing yourself in silence, you can nurture a deeper sense of self-awareness, enhancing introspection and personal growth. Practicing silence leads to self-reflection, helping you figure out if your life is going in the right direction. Once you become aware of the changes you’d like to see, you’ll be able to make a conscious improvement in the patterns of your life.
The potency of nature
Silence is not merely the absence of noise. Silence is a presence in the way that sleep is not just the absence of wakefulness, but rather a different state of consciousness, essential to life.
Nature and wildlife enthusiasts know that some of the best places where you can get away to hear silence is in nature. I’ve heard it myself in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park. Knowing more about what silence actually is and then wanting to preserve it is another reason why conserving some of our last remaining wild places is so important.
So, find a quiet spot, somewhere deep in the desert, the woods or in a neighborhood park. And listen to the silence. You’ll feel better for it.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,