It seems that silence is essential to every human being as it has some incredible benefits for the human brain.
We live in an increasingly noisy world. I was thinking about this while sitting outside in the backyard writing this article. It came from the highway a few blocks away, cars driving through the neighborhood. Dogs barking, and people playing loud music. At night as well, the noise is everywhere. This raises the question: does all of this noise cause problems to our health, and can we benefit from moments of silence?
In 2011, Finland launched a tourism campaign touting the quiet nature the country. The “country brand report” highlighted a series of marketable themes such as Finland’s renowned educational system and school of functional design. One key theme was brand new: silence.
As the report explained, modern society often seems intolerably loud and busy. “Silence is a resource,” it said. It could be marketed just like clean water or wild mushrooms. “In the future, people will be prepared to pay for the experience of silence.”
People already live in a loud world, noise canceling technology for headphones and automobiles is very popular. Finland saw that it was possible to quite literally make something out of nothing.
“We decided, instead of saying that it’s really empty and really quiet and nobody is talking about anything here, let’s embrace it and make it a good thing,” explains Eva Kiviranta, who manages social media for VisitFinland.com.
Silence is an odd start for a marketing campaign. After all, it can’t be measured, stored, sold or given away. The Finland campaign raises the question of just what are the tangible benefits of silence.
What Silence Does to the Human Brain and Body
In recent years, scientists have been studying the effects that silence has on the human mind and body, its power to calm our bodies, turn up the volume on our inner thoughts, and attune our connection to the world. Their findings start where we would expect them to, with noise.
Noise is a sound that is unwanted loud and uncomfortable to the hearer. Dislike of noise has produced some of history’s most eager advocates of silence, as Hillel Schwartz explains in his book Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond.
In 1859, the British nurse and social reformer Florence Nightingale wrote, “Unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that can be inflicted on sick or well.” Every careless clatter or a banal bit of banter, Nightingale argued, can be a source of alarm, distress, and loss of sleep for recovering patients. She even quoted a lecture that identified “sudden noises” as a cause of death among sick children.
Recent research verifies Nightingale’s claims. In the mid-20th century, epidemiologists discovered a link between hypertension and chronic exposure to noise such as that from highways and airports. Later research links noise to sleep loss and heart disease. When noise is heard, the brain has an immediate reaction even while asleep. This prompts an immediate release of stress hormones like cortisol. People who live in consistently loud environments often experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.
We like silence for what it doesn’t do – it doesn’t wake us, annoy us or try to kill us. But what is the benefit? When Florence Nightingale attacked noise as a “cruel absence of care,” she also insisted on the converse: Quiet is a part of care, as essential for patients as medication or sanitation. It’s a strange notion, but one that researchers have begun to bear out as true.
Silence Triggers the Growth of New Brain Cells
In 2013, regenerative biologist Imke Kirste was examining the effects of sound on the brains of adult mice. What she found would show the benefits of silence.
Her experiment exposed 4 groups of five mice to various auditory stimuli and used silence as a control. As it turned out, the stimuli had a short-term neurological effect, none of which was lasting. What she did find was that two hours of silence prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the brain region related to the formation of memory, involving the senses.
This was deeply puzzling: The total absence of input was having a more pronounced effect than any sort of input tested. The growth of new cells in the brain doesn’t always have health benefits. But in this case, Kirste says that the cells seemed to become functioning neurons.
“We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system.”
While these findings are preliminary one wonders what the applications could be. Could it be possible that this research could help those with degenerative disorders of the brain such as Alzheimer’s, dementia or Parkinson’s? The possibilities are exciting, scientists are continuing to unlock the marvel that is the human brain.
Traveling to Finland may be on your list of things to do. You don’t need to travel thousands of miles to find a place where you can get some silence. You could find a quiet room in your house or go for a walk in a park, this can do wonders for your mood and brain health.