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The Science of Silence

Updated: May 10

Recently, I found myself in my car mindlessly listening to the radio. I had driven quite a distance before I stopped and focused on the fact that there were sounds in the car. How often is the chaos around us simply absorbed into our daily lives? What are we letting in that we never give a second thought to?

After that experience, I decided to mindfully observe how often throughout the day that noise made its way into my environment compared to how often I allowed myself the opportunity to simply embrace the sound of silence. 

Not surprisingly, noise is everywhere. Stopping to acknowledge all of the passive noise inputs was actually overwhelming. From music playing in the grocery store to a multitude of televisions in restaurants, to music being piped into the outside space through speakers mounted on light posts as I browsed shops in my local downtown. Areas like parks were filled with people on phones, not to mention the number of headphone sightings. In every arena, the idea of quiet and sitting with your thoughts had an alternative that included noise.

Have you ever taken the opportunity to evaluate how you default regarding environmental noise? Are you one who welcomes silence, or does the thought of sitting with your thoughts cause you to become anxious?

Living in a world filled with noise, can be extremely helpful in keeping us from focusing on things in our lives that we prefer to block out. It allows our minds to stay busy. In the short term, this may seem like a great solution to our always busy minds. The truth is it has the opposite impact on our bodies.

According to a study from 2019 published in the National Library of Medicine, the role of noise as an environmental pollutant and its adverse effects on health are being increasingly recognized. Underlying impacts of noise-induced mental stress are centered on increased stress hormone levels, blood pressure, and heart rate.  

Mark A. W. Andrews, director and professor of physiology at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA noted that studies have indicated that stress resulting from ongoing white noise can induce the release of cortisol, a hormone that helps to restore homeostasis in the body after a bad experience. Excess cortisol impairs function in the prefrontal cortex which is an emotional learning center that helps to regulate “executive” functions such as planning, reasoning and impulse control. Some recent evidence indicates that the prefrontal cortex also stores short-term memories. Changes to this region, therefore, may disrupt a person’s capacity to think clearly and to retain information.

The benefits of silence reach farther than just quieting your mind. A 2013 study on mice published in the journal Brain, Structure and Function used different types of noise and silence and monitored the effect the sound and silence had on the brains of the mice. 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. Due to silence being the control group, the impacts on silence to the brain were not further researched in this particular study. However, the observation was notable. 

Clearly noise is everywhere. While that can be seemingly overwhelming, simply making note of it and allowing an awareness of how often passive noise is around us can help us to be more mindful of silence.

The benefits of silence are abundant, the ones listed here are just a few:

  • Relieves stress

  • Increases creativity

  • Improves heart health by lowering blood pressure

  • Clears your mind

  • Improves sleep

  • Reduces Cortisol (the stress hormone)

  • Improves concentration

If you’re anything like me you might be saying to yourself, “What exactly am I supposed to do with this information? How can I reduce external noise if it’s everywhere?”

Here a some suggestions:

  • Spend the first moments of the day in silence before getting out of bed or reaching for your phone.

  • Have your morning coffee outside taking time to observe your environment.

  • Turn off the radio while driving.

  • Have headphone-free times of the day. Better yet, disconnect from technology altogether for a period of time each day.

  • Go for a walk or a hike focusing on your surroundings.

  • Find moments to pause in transition points from one task to another within your day.

What would silent moments look like for you in your life? Take the challenge to cultivate silence.

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