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Quiet! The Restorative Sound of Silence

“Hello darkness my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence”
– Simon and Garfunkel

 

I love the quiet.
That time when the rest of the world is hushed.
The sound of silence when the only thing disturbing your peace is the white noise being generated by your head.
A time to sit on your own, with someone you love, a good friend or beloved pet and just be. No words required.

Silence in which to think, reflect and ponder.
Silence to discover the space needed to separate you from the noisy hubbub of life and work.
Silence to engage your senses more fully, to see, smell, taste and touch.
Silence to disengage from the noise of other voices, the media, our technology.

 

How does silence make you feel?

Do you find it soothing, restorative or calming? Do you readily sink into quiet to feel better about things?
Do you use silence to help you focus, to meditate, to pray?
Do you find it awkward, wasteful, even embarrassing? If you’ve ever sat in a group where a question has been posed and no one wants to speak up, are you the one to fill the void because that silence is deafening?
Have you ever deliberately spent time in a wild and remote place to embrace the quiet?
Have you ever been on a silent retreat?

Whether you consider yourself an introvert, extrovert or ambivert, the reality is your brain longs for some quiet. Which is our increasingly noisy and complex world can sometimes feel difficult to achieve.

 

The benefits of silence include the ability to

  • Develop new neurons to be integrated into your existing neural circuitry.
  • Create more insight, solve more problems and process new information to make better sense of your world.
  • Alleviate stress by releasing tension and lowering stress hormones. 
  • Replenish your cognitive resources.

Noise is a stressor. Living under a flight path or close to a major highway has been shown to elevate stress even after we have learnt not to hear the noise. I grew up in a house on a busy main road. Over the years, I stopped hearing the traffic or so I thought. It turns out our brain doesn’t habituate to this type of noise and remains in an elevated state of stress triggering the fight or flight response.

Then, when my parents moved to a semi-rural property none of could sleep at first because it was too quiet!

Too much exposure to noise in childhood as in living close to an airport has been shown to impair children’s reading skills and memory and more worryingly slow language and cognitive development.

Studies have shown that noise pollution can be a risk factor for depression, cognitive impairment and neurodegeneration. As we move into increasingly urbanised living environments, noisy workplaces and find our ability to sleep frustrated by the sound of late-night revellers talking loudly in the street, noisy waste disposal trucks or street cleaners this is putting our health and wellbeing at risk. 

Noise pollution is costly to our health and the economy. The World Health Organisation estimates one million healthy life years (DALYS) are lost annually as a result of environmental noise in high income Western European populations (340 million).

 

Quiet and Movement for Neurogenesis

The role of exercise in stimulating the process of neurogenesis has been well understood for a while. What is less well known is how silence can also promote neurogenesis in the hippocampus (at least in mice). This somewhat surprising finding showed how 2 hours of silence promoted the production of new neurons functioning in the hippocampus.

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Quiet and Self Reflection

I never cease to be amazed by the number of people who tell me their lives are so busy they have no time to think. Apart from running around in ever-decreasing circles this frenetic rush to put out all the innumerable spot fires means your poor brain never has any respite time to draw breath or distinguish between the urgent and important, so it rates everything the same – as potential threat. Not only is this cognitively exhausting it’s short-changing your ability to sit and reflect or imagine and reduces your ability to come up with that all-important insight to resolve that curly problem you’ve been chewing over for days.

The best thing your brain does when you’re not actively engaged and focused on a task is to switch to what’s called the default mode where you can evaluate incoming information, process and reflect on what to do next.

By quietening down the brain in this way, becoming more inward looking and being in a slightly positive mood stimulates the development of insight that sudden knowing the answer. Eureka!

 

Quiet for concentration and focus

If I’m trying to study, read an article or writ a blog. I need quiet.

I know comes down to personal preference, but I have always enjoyed libraries because of the ‘Ssssh’ factor. My kids disagree – they like noise as a distractor to help them concentrate, which just goes to show we are all different.

If I’m somewhere where I can’t be assured of the quiet I need, you’ll find me wearing my noise cancelling headphones. I’ll also do this if I simply need timeout to just be when in a public space, when travelling (those were the days) or sitting in a taxi. I might be the only person who doesn’t put their headphones on to listen to music, audiobooks or podcasts, though I suspect there may be other renegades like me who also relish their quiet.

 

Quiet and awe

In a previous blog I wrote about the power of awe.

One aspect of awe – again a personal thing, is to experience silence in a place of space and majesty. This could be when hiking through mountains looking down into the valleys below. It happened recently when we travelled into the Nullabor.

To stand at dawn and survey the totally flat 360-degree horizon where the only noise was coming from my breath was both glorious and awesome.

That silence was inspiring.

So, what does this all mean?

That silence is something to celebrate and enjoy for all the benefits it can bring.

The bigger question is, should we be looking to include more silence into how we live our lives and do our work?

Should we be paying more attention to urban design to reduce potential noise pollution?

Should we consider a “noise tax” or a strategy to reduce the cognitive impact of noise on our health and wellbeing?

Rediscovering the beauty of silence can come from

  • Travelling to a remote place
  • Spending time outdoors or exercising without talking or listening to music
  • Practising meditation
  • Going on a silent retreat
  • Forest bathing
  • Reading in a library
  • Having a float in a float tank
  • Wearing noise cancelling headphones

What do you do to enjoy more peace and quiet in your life?
Is silence something you relish and look forward to?
Do you use quiet to enhance your wellbeing, thinking and performance?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase

If psychological safety, resilience and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.

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