Stop for a minute and just listen. What do you hear?
Right now, I can hear that relentless beeping sound a truck makes as it reverses itself. For the last twenty minutes or so, it has gone forward and back, forward and back, ensuring an almost continuous string of beeps. I can hear the clicking of keyboards as my co-workers tap away. Beneath all that, there is a slight buzzing sound, probably from the fluorescent lights above me. And now, the furnace has kicked on.
Yet, because there is no continuous television, radio, or other media sound in the foreground, this is what we, in the modern world, now consider “silence”.
In 2011, The World Health Organization released a report on noise pollution, concluding that it had a major negative impact on health. After examining a number of health studies across western Europe, it was found that the constant noise emanating from airplanes, trains, and highways not only had a tendency to raise blood pressure among the population, but also increased the risk of fatal heart attacks. It also negatively affects our children, with those growing up near highways and flight paths demonstrating slower cognitive development, and lower reading scores than those brought up in quieter neighbourhoods.
The volume of this never-ending background noise doesn’t even have to be very loud to produce these negative effects. According to The World Health Organization, the optimum level of noise for healing is just 35 decibels. Yet, while working in an office, or eating at a local restaurant, we are already exposed to 65 decibels of background noise. When the level of noise climbs above 65 decibels, that’s when we start seeing negative effects to our cardiovascular system.
The problem is, you can’t ignore noise. You can close your eyes and look away from sights you’d rather not see, and your brain can assimilate bad smells, so that after awhile you don’t notice them anymore. (You learn this growing up on a dairy farm). But sounds have a unique ability to annoy us. This is probably because sounds have long alerted us to threats in our environment. As such, whenever we hear a noise, even a relatively quiet one, there’s a burst of stress hormones from our adrenal glands. In the WHO report, researchers found significantly higher levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol in children living near busy airports, compared to those from quieter neighbourhoods. No doubt, the same stress hormones were elevated in their parents too.
In the past, we’ve tended to ignore the importance of silence. Reports like the one I cited above have been shrugged off as alarmist. However, a 2013 study published in the journal Brain Structure and Function may change all that. In this particular study, researchers were trying to figure out which type of noise spurs the biggest growth of brain cells in mice. All noises are stimulating to brain functioning, so it was assumed that one particular type of noise might be more beneficial than others.
The researchers then watched the mice as they were exposed to different types of music, as well as other random noises from the environment, with two hours of silence used as the control. What the researchers found surprised them. Intriguingly, none of the various noises caused the mice to produce new brain cells. The only time new brain cells were formed was during that two hour period of silence.
I will pause here, for a moment of silence, and let that information sink in.
We have a problem. Our brains, and our bodies, need silence to function optimally, yet our world is increasingly filled with noise. Even relatively low decibel noises have been shown to negatively impact our stress level, increase our blood pressure, weaken our heart functioning, and reduce our ability to learn. And now we also know that our brains tend to atrophy in the presence of noise. The constant, low-level aggravation causes our brain to slow down and stop growing.
The only possible solution to this problem, as I see it, is that we must learn to seek out silence wherever we can, whether it is through a regular meditation or yoga practice, a walk through the park at lunch, or some quiet time spent looking out the window as the sun sets.
Erling Kagge, the record-breaking Norwegian explorer, has some thoughts on silence. In his best-selling book, entitled “Silence in the Age of Noise”, he describes his life-long search for silence during his explorations of the North and South poles, and while climbing Mount Everest. “I understood that I had a primal need for silence,” he says, and describes his difficulties in teaching his daughters to turn off their music, and put down their cell phones so they can experience it for themselves. “The world’s secrets are hidden inside silence,” he says. “Silence should not be something we fear, but something we look at as a valuable friend, or as a luxury more valuable than anything we possess”.
Silence, then, should not be viewed as mere emptiness or lack, but as a healing balm for our heart and soul. Try to inject some silence into your day today. In our increasingly cacophonous world, it may one day prove more valuable than gold.