The Sound of Silence is Good for Your Brain
When was the last time you enjoyed some peace and quiet? If you’re like most people, the answer is probably “It’s been a while.” Days, maybe. Weeks. Possibly even months. We live in a noisy world, and it’s becoming increasingly louder with each passing year. As technology has grown more sophisticated, so have the ways in which we subject ourselves to unnecessary noise.
Where once the loudest thing we had to endure was the early-morning crowing of a rooster, today we have countless types of noise inflicted on us nearly every waking moment—and it doesn’t stop when we sleep. Noise is a constant, and if the environment doesn’t assault us with enough we inflict it on ourselves.
Many of us keep the television on day in and day out, “for company.” We have the radio on in the background “to break the silence.” We have computers and phones, iPads and iPods and MP3 players, all pouring noise into our personal space until it’s nearly impossible to hear ourselves think.
Connoisseurs of silence have always known that it clears a space for reflection and for deep thought. They’ve known that constant noise bars you from deeper contemplation, and that indulging in silence reduces stress. Now science suggests that there may be an even better reason to listen to the sound of silence.
Noise is like auditory smog, and it makes us sick
Back in 2007 the WHO declared that noise pollution is a “modern plague” and called it a public health issue. I often disagree with WHO conclusions, but in this case I think they’re spot-on. Scientists aren’t exactly queueing up to study the effects of noise, but that doesn’t mean that no research has been done—it has. And what it tells us isn’t anything good.
Studies show that long-term exposure to noise above 65 decibels causes changes that affect the cardiovascular system—it increases the risk of heart disease. To put that in perspective, 65 decibels is about the level of restaurant or office background noise. Or background music. Or your window air conditioner. Acute exposure at 85 decibels or more—running your garbage disposal or your blender, for example— has the same effect.
Noise causes your body to dump stress hormones into your bloodstream, which strains your entire system. Noise raises heart rate and blood pressure. It constricts your blood vessels. It actually makes your blood thicker and more viscous, putting more stress on your heart. Noise exposure even raises your cholesterol.
And that’s not the end of it. Noise disturbs our sleep and leaves us chronically sleep-deprived. It promotes aggressive behavior. It impairs the ability to concentrate and remember. It leads to anxiety, depression, and more.
The authors of the study I’m about to discuss didn’t set out to research silence. Instead, they were studying noise and how various forms affect the brains of mice. They were hoping to discover what type of noise might spur the brain to create new cells.
They didn’t find one. What they found was much more intriguing.
Silence grows your brain
The study took place at Duke University, and looked at the brain’s response to different types of noise in mice. Like all well-designed study, it included a “control” state against which everything else was measured. In this case, the control was silence. Two whole hours of silence, in fact. And as the control state, silence wasn’t expected to have any effect of its own. Silence, it was thought, would be a sort of neutral state in which nothing much went on.
No one was prepared for what did happen.
None of the noises the mice were exposed to spurred new cell growth…but the period of silence did.
And not only did the mouse brains produce new cells, these cells became fully functioning neurons. They made connections with the neurons around them—they plugged themselves into the network and got busy. And, perhaps just as importantly, the part of the brain that generated these new cells was the hippocampus, which is the first part of the brain to deteriorate in Alzheimer’s patients.
Although most reports of this study are quick to point out the it doesn’t necessarily translate into “any tangible health benefits,” this seems like a bit of dissembling to me. We already know that silence does have very real health benefits, like lowering our levels of stress hormones and all the health perils that go along with them. While it might be premature to claim that daily periods of silence can prevent the onset of or slow the progression of degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, the evidence is pretty clear in other cases.
So what does this mean for you?
It means that we could all benefit from stopping to listen to the sound of silence for a time every day. We already know that noise—even fairly low-level noise—creates stress. And stress is a component in nearly every chronic disease we’re facing today.
We also know that night-time noise disturbs our sleep cycles, even if we’re not conscious of it—and we know that chronic sleep deprivation also leads to a host of health problems and plays a role in issues from diabetes to cognitive decline. It seems clear that anything we can do to reduce the noise levels in our lives is bound to be beneficial for our health.
But where do you begin? If you live in the city, noise may seem inescapable. It might seem like the only way to really quiet your world is to move to the country. There are, however, some simple steps you can take to lower your noise exposure no matter where you live.
If external noise is a problem, these options may help:
- Weatherproof your house. The same nooks and chinks that let in heat and cold also let in sound. Install well-fitting storm doors and windows. Weatherstrip around doors. Caulk any cracks or crannies that let in drafts and you’ll also seal out a bit of noise.
- Replace hollow doors with solid wood doors.
- Invest in double-paned windows. The air-filled space between the panes serves to dampen sound.
And if the internal noise level of your home is too high, try these steps:
- Don’t use media as “background noise.” If you’re not actively watching it or listening to it, turn it off—and make everyone else do the same.
- Suggest personal headphones if other people’s “entertainment” is a problem.
- Choose low-noise appliances.
- Make sure all your appliances are at least a couple of inches from the walls.
And last but not least, if you can’t hear the silence for the noise, purchase a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. You might not want to wear them around all day, but they’re an excellent way to experience a period of personal silence to meditate, contemplate, or read.
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