Silence, Please: The Regenerative Effects of Peace and Quiet

silence pleaseIn the year 2008, Finland appointed a delegation tasked with creating a national brand. The delegation issued a slick “Country Brand Report” highlighting a host of marketable themes, including Finland’s renowned educational system and vast natural beauty. And one curious theme made the final list too, which they deemed would appeal loudest of all: silence.

The “silence” associated with Finland, was no longer to be thought of as boring and unexciting, urged the delegates, but could be considered a “natural resource,” especially amidst a modern world of loudness and busyness. A world in which some pay out hundreds for expensive noise-canceling headphones; and others are willing to part with thousands for weeklong silent meditation courses.

Recent studies highlight the peculiar power of silence to calm our bodies, turn up the volume on our inner life, and attune our connection to the world. Contrasted with “noise,” a word that comes from a Latin root meaning either queasiness or pain; and the notion of “noise pollution,” a term coined by researchers in the 1960s that pointed at the harmful effects of noisiness on the activity and balance of life.

The word “noise” comes from a Latin root meaning either queasiness or pain.

Noises are received as physical vibrations by the ear where they are converted into electrical signals for the brain. There they first activate the amygdalae, the region of the brain associated with memory formation and emotion, prompting an immediate release of stress hormones like cortisol — people living in consistently loud environments often experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.

On the other hand, as one study at Duke University by regenerative biologist, Imke Kirste, showed; two hours of silence per day actually prompted cell development in the region of the brain known as the hippocampus. “We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system,” remarked Kirste.

Kirste concluded that neurologists could find a therapeutic use for silence, for instance in the treatment of conditions like dementia and depression that have been associated with decreasing rates of neurogenesis in the hippocampus.

Two hours of silence per day actually prompted cell development in the hippocampus

For decades, scientists have known that the brain’s “background” activity consumes most of its energy. Difficult tasks like pattern recognition or arithmetic, concluded neuroscientists in a 1997 study at Washington University, only slightly increased the brain’s energy consumption. They argued that this “default mode” of brain function had “rather obvious evolutionary significance,” for example in detecting predators, and other “automatic” functions.

However, follow-up research in 2013 by Joseph Moran and colleagues, has shown the default mode is also enlisted in self-reflection. During the time when the brain rests quietly, wrote Moran and colleagues, it integrates external and internal information into “a conscious workspace.” Freedom from noise and goal-directed tasks, it appears, allows us to weave ourselves into the world, to discover where and how we fit in.

“If you want to know yourself you have to be with yourself, and discuss with yourself, be able to talk with yourself,” said Noora Vikman, an ethnomusicologist and consultant for silence to Finland’s delegates. Thoroughly convinced by the power of silence, in 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board released a series of photographs of lone figures in the wilderness, with the caption “Silence, Please.”