In his book Silence: In the age of noise, Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge calls silence “the new luxury.”
“We went down into the silent garden. Dawn is the time when nothing breathes, the hour of silence.” – Leonora Carrington
For many, ‘music soothes the savage beast’ – the beast of anxiety – but silence is increasingly a way to tune out of the noise of pressure, stress, and the actual noise of the city.
In 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that noise was an ‘under-estimated threat’ to public health. The European Environment Agency concluded in their 2020 report that noise was an ongoing and widespread problem with at least one person in five (20%) consistently exposed to noise levels harmful to health.
Neuroscientists and neuropsychologists are increasingly studying how the brain responds to a lack of sensory input. For example, focusing on your own breath or your own heartbeat, such as when you are in a relaxed or meditative state, helps to shut out external noise. This ability, say scientists, has a range of known health benefits, including reduced stress, which promotes greater feelings of wellbeing.
Scientists studied people using a floatation tank as a therapeutic approach – i.e. people float in an open-lidded pod-like tank that shuts out noise. Participants reported decreases in stress, muscle tension, pain, and symptoms of depression after just one 60-minute session in the floatation tank. Post-float measures showed a significant increase in feelings of relaxation with overall wellbeing. ‘People who are chronically anxious or depressed are always ruminating, cogitating over what is happening – but when they can focus on their breathing and heartbeat in a float environment, they can find a lot of their anxious thoughts dissipate,’ says Justin Feinstein, a clinical neuropsychologist and director of the Float Clinic and Research Center at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma. ‘These positive effects can last up to 48 hours.’
Tal Dotan Ben-Soussan, director of the Research Institute for Neuroscience, Education and Didactics at the Patrizio Paoletti Foundation in Rome, Italy, says, ‘When we find ways to be quiet, we are not only quiet in our environment, but quiet in our inner selves.’
Scientists wondered what the benefits would be for people spending longer time in a flotation tank. Forty-eight people participated in three 90-minute float sessions or three 90-minute relaxation sessions (in a reclining chair), over three weeks, while attached to a brain scan pre-and-post sessions. The scientists found that float sessions ‘uniquely decreased activity in the default mode network (DMN), a collection of brain regions active when the brain is at rest or not engaged in any task. This is similar to brain activity during meditation and during psychedelic experiences – and linked to improvements for people abusing alcohol and people with obsessive-compulsive disorders (New Scientist, 10 August 2022).
Float tank sessions cost money of course. But meditation and periods of silence are free or cheap. Isolating yourself from work, the family, a noisy environment could be as simple as going to the restroom for five minutes, or finding longer periods of time in quietude by going for a walk.
Meditation is the practice of redirecting your thoughts away from the negative and towards stillness and silence. It is not a sleep state – you are still conscious of yourself and your surroundings. It is deep concentration. You do not need to be sitting in a lotus or crossed-legged position, or chanting, or have any special equipment. There are a variety of meditation techniques, from a few minutes to longer periods of time. For example, Healthline mentions 2 types of meditation: 1) focused-attention meditation – concentrating of a single object, thought, sound, or image, and focusing on breathing (you can say aloud or to yourself mantras, chanting, humming, or positive affirmations but these are not necessary), and 2) open-monitoring meditation – broadening your awareness of your environment, thoughts and sense of self. There are healing meditations and meditations to connect with spirit; there are maze (labyrinth) meditations and circle-walking meditations; and there are gardening or music meditations. There are meditation classes and meditation groups.
Healthline says meditation – any form of relaxed self-meditation or guided meditation in a quiet, comfortable space, sitting, lying down, or standing – has the following benefits:
- reduces stress
- controls anxiety
- promotes emotional health
- enhances self-awareness
- lengthens attention span
- reduces age-related memory loss, possibly
- generates kindness
- fights or breaks addictions, possibly
- improves sleep
- helps control pain
- decreases blood pressure.
Many people use noise reduction headphones at work, at the airport, in the plane, in the family home, etc. The product companies state that the noise reduction headphones ‘cancel noise’ or provide ‘white noise.’ They reduce ambient sounds. They are also used when listening to other audio content – podcasts, music, etc. – to keep the volume down, and protect the ears (which is not silence practice, but ‘reduced noise’ practice).
Floatation tanks are person-made equipment to induce silence.
There are similarities like ‘time out’ sessions that parents and educators typically use where people can sit or stand in a corner or quiet place to ‘settle down.’ There are quiet rooms that people designate in their house or workplace for people to sit quietly, read, think, and contemplate.
In 2019, Eric Pfeifer, a psychotherapy researcher at the Catholic University of Applied Sciences Freiburg in Germany, studied different types of silent experiments. The tests included up to 15 minutes of 1) silence experienced alone, 2) silence experienced in a group, 3) silence experienced inside, 4) silence experienced outside, 5) silence experienced with instructions, 6) silence experienced without instructions, 7) silence experienced with occasional episodes of relaxing music, and 8) silence experienced without episodes of relaxing music.
Pfeifer and his colleagues found that all types of silence led to improved mood and increased relaxation in the majority of participants. However, some types of silences produced better results. Periods of silence in a natural setting, like a park, when combined with a therapist to guide the participant with intermittent relaxing music or meditation offered the best results.
There have been studies on complete sensory deprivation, especially for extensively long periods – such as in solitary confinement, prison, detention centres, etc. – often used as a form of punishment or torture. People panic, they hallucinate, and prolonged silence messes with their head and cognitive abilities.
Studies show that more than 15 minutes in an anechoic chamber (which blocks out sound) can make people feel ‘uncomfortable.’ In 2014, Timothy Wilson and his colleagues at the University of Virginia found that participants would rather give themselves a painful electric shock than sit quietly with their thoughts. This suggests, he said, that people prefer some stimulation and sensory activity over being left alone in silence, even if the stimulation is negative. As novelist Sarah Dessen says, ‘Silence is so freaking loud.’
But a repeat of this experiment in 2019 by Eric Pfeifer at the Catholic University of Applied Sciences Freiburg in Germany, had opposite results. ‘The participants in our study thought it was great. They enjoyed being alone in a room without a mobile phone or laptop,’ he says.
However, both Wilson and Pfeifer seem to agree that some people will not benefit from silence, particularly those who are in a heightened state of stress.
There are no studies yet that help to determine who benefits most from silence.
Silence does not necessarily address core issues.
“I need to be alone. I need to ponder my shame and my despair in seclusion; I need the sunshine and the paving stones of the streets without companions, without conversation, face to face with myself, with only the music of my heart for company.” – Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
“Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.” – Norton Juster, The Phantom Tolbooth
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