Science Says Silence is Vital for Our Brains

By Azriel ReShel on Wednesday May 9th, 2018

Image: Katie Scott

The Proof that Noise Hurts and Silence Heals

The value of silence is felt by everyone at some point in their life. Silence is comforting, nourishing and cosy. It opens us up to inspiration, and nurtures the mind, body and soul. Meanwhile, the madness of the noisy world is drowning out our creativity, our inner connection and hampering our resilience. Science is now showing that silence may be just what we need to regenerate our exhausted brains and bodies.

Studies show that noise has a powerful physical effect on our brains, causing elevated levels of stress hormones. Sound travels to the brain as electrical signals via the ear. Even when we are sleeping these sound waves cause the body to react and activate the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with memory and emotion, leading to the release of stress hormones. So, living in a consistently noisy environment will cause you to experience extremely high levels of these harmful hormones.

Interestingly, the word noise is said to come from the Latin word nausia, (disgust or nausea) or the Latin word noxia, meaning hurt, damage or injury. Noise has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, tinnitus and loss of sleep. We’ve all experienced the detrimental effects of noise pollution. Excessive noise can be a major affront to the physical senses and today, more and more people are identifying as highly sensitive and unable to function in chaotic and noisy environments. But now science has the proof not only that noise hurts, but also that silence heals.

Noise and stressStudies show that noise causes stress hormones to be released in the brain.

The Effects of Silence

In 2011, the World Health Organisation (WHO) examined and quantified its health burden in Europe. It concluded that the 340 million residents of Western Europe (about the population of the United States), were losing a million years of healthy life every year, due to noise. WHO also said that the root cause of 3,000 heart disease deaths was due to excessive noise. A study by Professor Gary W. Evans from Cornell University, published in Psychological Science, charted the effects of airport noise on school children near Munich’s airport. The study showed that children exposed to noise developed a stress response which actually caused them to ignore the noise. He found that the children ignored both the harmful noise of the airport, along with other more everyday noises, such as speech.

This study is among the strongest, probably the most definitive proof that noise–even at levels that do not produce any hearing damage–causes stress and is harmful to humans. – Professor Gary Evans.

Scientists didn’t actively set out to study the effects of silence, but instead discovered its benefits by accident. Silence first began to appear in scientific research as a control or baseline, against which scientists compare the effects of noise or music. Physician Luciano Bernardi studied the physiological effects of noise and music in 2006, making a startling discovery. When the subjects of his study were exposed to the random stretches of silence in between the noise and music, they experienced a powerful effect. The two minute pauses were far more relaxing for the brain than the relaxing music or the longer silence that was in place before the experiment started. In fact, Bernardi’s ‘irrelevant’ blank pauses became the most important aspect of the study. One of his key findings was that silence is heightened by contrasts.

The brain responds to silenceThe brain recognises silence and responds powerfully.

Many meditation teachers and practitioners can attest to this, and spiritual teachers advise students to take frequent meditative pauses throughout the day. Though we may think of silence as a lack of input, science says otherwise. The brain recognises silence and responds powerfully. Later research by a Duke University regenerative biologist, Imke Kirste, discovered that two hours of silence per day prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the brain region related to the formation of memory, involving the senses.

Taking Time to Switch Off

According to the Attention Restoration Theory, when you are in an environment with lower levels of sensory input, the brain can ‘recover’ some of its cognitive abilities. With our digital world, our brains get less time to switch off. We are constantly processing enormous amounts of information. Research has shown the constant attention demands of modern life is placing a lot of stress on our prefrontal cortex–the part of the brain responsible for making decisions, solving problems and more. When we spend time alone in silence, our brains are able to relax and release this constant focus.

Researchers found that silence helps new cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system, and that when we experience silence, our brains are able to work at better understanding our internal and external environments. We can make sense of our lives and gain perspective, something that is vital for our overall wellbeing.

Silence relieves stressSilence relieves stress and tension in the brain and body.

While noise creates stress, silence relieves stress and tension in the brain and body. Silence is replenishing and nourishes our cognitive resources. Noise makes us lose our concentration, cognitive powers and causes decreased motivation and brain functioning (as backed up by research into the effects of noise), but studies show that spending some time in silence can amazingly restore what was lost through exposure to excessive noise. The ancient spiritual masters have known this all along; silence heals, silence takes us deeply into ourselves, and silence balances the body and mind. Now science is saying the same thing.

The healing benefits of nature and stillness are well documented, but now we can add to this quest for health and wellbeing, the nourishment of our brains. The simple yet ancient experience of silence could be just the healing balm we need to quell our crazy modern lifestyle.

Silence is an empty space. Space is the home of the awakened mind. – Buddha

How do you feel about this article? Join the conversation.

Azriel ReShel

Writer, Editor, Yoga Teacher & Healing Facilitator




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58 Responses to Science Says Silence is Vital for Our Brains

  1. This is an interesting article. I actually own a float spa which provides a reduced sensory environment. I absolutely thrive in this silent retreat space.

  2. Noise is not the opposite of silence. I love a quiet environment, but would hate to be deaf. I love the sound of a babbling brook, the laughter of a child, mellow music. Sound is a good thing.
    To move into the metaphysical realm, I do not accept that silence is necessary to hear God. I have absolute faith that my God, creator of thunder, is perfectly able to speak to me, always, regardless of my environment.

  3. For everyone suffeting tinnitus…I have one solution: ear plugs.

    The more you protect your ears from the noise, the more this issue heals. At least this is my case. I suffered all my life, but protected my ears all my life as well. When tinnitus is bad, I protect them more, even outside.

    Now, when reading this…I noticed tinnitus first time for…..months….more than a year. I had forgotten it and hadn’t even paid attention. Sometimes I thought it had gone. Now it game back…makes me wonder <3

  4. For those of you who suffer from tinnitus, put both your hands over your ears so that the fingers tips touch each other on the back of your head, then tap the back of your head with your finger tips.

    You’re welcome.

    • What is supposed to happen. I did it but got nothing but the sound of my fingers tapping inside my skull added to the tinnitus screeching… When I’m in silence the tinnitus is harder to ignore… So I find that having other sounds helps me ignore the tinnitus sound better, which I guess this could be considered as sorta doing, but it’s still there. I agree with someone else who commented that more research needs to be done on this ailment. If profits are the catalyst of research then rest assured that if a ‘cure’ or way to reduce it is discovered it would sell world wide!

    • I think so as your brain still has to process it. I would guess weight the benefit of subliminal with that of silence for you. Or just do both by alternating.

  5. Yes, I have the pricey Bose sound canceling headphones and sometimes I find myself sitting with them on and not realizing that the audio or music has ended. Silence is golden as they say and it is very addicting.

    • Get some earplugs. Some moldable ones to put in your ear canals and also soundproofing headphones, what you would use at a shooting range.

      You can get both of these online.
      This is what I did.

      It doesn’t completely block out all sound but it is greatly reduced.

  6. Concerning the tinnitus discussion…..what I got from the article is that noise raises bad hormone levels snd silence lowers them. So it would seem tinnitus noise would be a constant hormone release with never having silence to lower them. If this is the case I think more effort should be put toward finding a real cure. Not a try this or try that kind of thing.

  7. True silence seems impossible to achieve. Even in the middle of the woods, away from all human sounds, the water, birds, insects provide constant sound.

    Does anyone have experience with noise canceling headphones.

    • This is true Jennifer. I believe a certain degree of soft, background noise or white noise is still very benefitial.

      Team UPLIFT

  8. Does sensory music help cause thats what has been keeping me calm for years when i get super stressed i put that on and it makes me feel relaxed so idk if it counts now that i read this article

    • Hi there,
      My understanding is that silence is important and has its own benefits but that’s not to say that other music – like sensory – can’t also impact us positively. If you find it calms you, that’s great! But it’s probably good to have silence too sometimes, even if just at night 🙂

      Team UPLIFT

  9. I did the 10 days Vipassana (includes nobel silence) the most shocking experience was the last day when all people started chatting again in the dining room. Horrible.

  10. A study done in New York City by the City Government in 1965 found that prologued exposure to noise or any sound for that matter above a certain decibel level (I think it was around 75 decibels)for extended periods definitely resulted in causing the victim to become insane …

  11. Blood is pumped.With every pumping body bumps during day time and when we are working physically. But, during night time or when body is not working the body does not bump woth every pumping of blood. There is relax in the body, spiritually it is one with atma or soul or paramatma as anoraneeyan, the effect is sleep, the more relax the body is, the more relaxing , and it is Antaranga Darshan or Vishwaroppa Darshan. We all do experience this during our sleep. But, to peep outside our body is essential to have Virat Darshan of The Paramatma. That is, Maha Advaita Vedanta Philosophy, and it is feeling of One with The Universe and The Paramatma, as Mahato Maheeyan.

  12. I”ve been campaigning for years against noisy motorbikes and other unnecessarily noisy machines to no avail. The ecological ignorance and apathy out there is as large, or larger, and much noisier than the universe.

  13. As a musician and mother I’ve learned how helpful it can be to turn off all the noise – the subsequent creative energy is remarkable & deeply refreshing.

  14. my job has become a noise. pollutant..and i have seen the stressers it has caused..and the results ..in my life..i have to get thru this year..and i am out..hope to reverse the damage quickly…

  15. I have been using earplugs when I sleep. It is making all the difference in a brain injury I have as far as getting my equilibrium back and healing. I wasn’t sure if it was because I was sleeping uninterrupted or both but now I know it is because my hormones levels have lowered as my body doesn’t respond to every bump in the night. I’m glad to see the research. It certainly has improved my life to block it all out and relax and sleep in silence.

  16. Well i have always know this to be true..so glad science has caught up …i am at my best in if not silence quiet surroundibgs…but i long for silence daily..i have Bipolar 1 and i know that noise is a triggor for me to become unwell…noise is toxic energy..silence is Golden Nectar….white light ..pure energy….???..like sunshine for the soul..

    • I was going to ask the same thing! I also wonder if it might have to do with adaptation: born in NYC, I knew someone who felt “comforted” by the honks of cars in Manhattan. I couldn’t stand it, being raised in the country.

      • one of the benefits of certain types of “white” sounds, like running water, is that it allows the sharp abrupt “black” sounds to be somewhat neutralised. It’s a natural form of “cancelation”. It’s also important to note that in that case the speakers should be pointed outwards toward the source of the black noise sources and in cases when the decibel rating approaches sixty or seventy, attenuation, such as ear plugs, should be worn. This reduces both sounds by a factor of about fifteen to twenty-five percent. The ideal is deliberately locating one’s self in a noise-free environment. There are products in the construction industry that can be instaled in the personal quarters such as sound-proofing vinyl, sound-proof glass, and other things such as chamber walls and ceiling covered with elongated special foam rubber pyramids. The latter can achieve complete sound-proofing. In such chambers, the individual can hear a drum and a high whining sound. This is the sound of his or her own heard and the high pitch of the nerve activity. Care must be taken for those entering a total sound-proof room since often they can react with extreme panic and hysteria which might be somewhat damaging to the mental health of such types … check my Facebook group “Paul Hall bringing good sleep to you”.

      • The main function of white noise is that it can be used when there is no other option. It must not be confused with silence as a benefit, but it can produce a steady sound which enables the reduction of the type of stress such as, for example, a hammer driving nails nearby or a honking horn (especially if someone has to sleep near a parking lot where car horns make a brief sound to confirm a lock-up when it’s driver leaves and activates the remote lock feature on modern car keys). I used a recording of a small brook which I called “Water Brook Bravo” when I resided in a cheap hotel in Caracas, Venezuela back in 1987, which played Merengue music at full volume on speakers throughout the hotel 24/7. As for the annoyance of an available white sound, with patience, you can get used to it, but it sometimes takes time. In my army barracks back in 1967, the only way for me to get sleep in the incessant bedlam of most of the other soldiers and their “record players” was to attach my blanket to my floor fan and sleep with the fan blowing on “high” beyond the pillow near my head. It took about a half hour to get “used to it”, but the relief of being able to sleep after that was fabulous. Also, at Fort Monmouth, a white sound was used to keep the Soviets from listening to the classes of cryptography on the top floor on one of the buildings. Of course, silence is highly preferable. But for that, you are going to have to be in greater control of your whereabouts. It was once noted in one news article I read that the average human being is the noisiest animal in existence.

  17. Ever since I was a small child, noise has affected me very badly. In my experience I have found it disorienting and very stressful. For me silence is truly a jewel to treasure and make time for daily!

  18. I fully agree. A couple of years ago I held a lecture on silence in our lokal library. It was quite still in the room during the lecture, and I felt this was something people really needed to be aware of. Very good, special atmosphere after the lecture also.
    I am totally convinced that silence has that positive impact on us, by my own experience.
    Great that science also find it interesting to study now!

  19. I also have tinnitus but I make sure I get creative in my art without any other noise only the birds singing,then I don’t hear my tinnitus. The more you do something you love the less you hear your tinnitus. I got my tinnitus from noisy neighbours then we move to a quite place. Tinnitus is not nice but one learn to lived with it. I feel the less you think about tinnitus the less you hear it. God can help you with everything. Ben you are right external silent is internal silents for us.

    • I was thinking the same thing. I also have tinnitus. But tinnitus is internal. So, maybe when it is externally silent – that is silence for us. Not sure…

    • The most effective reduction in my tinnitus has been a low dose of antidepressant. A very noticeable 50% reduction. Some people also find magnesium helpful

    • I’ve had mild tinnitus since my stapedius muscle started blocking input in my left ear, around age 30. It’s reduced my enjoyment of music but otherwise I know it’s just the vibrations of my own head, so ignore it and don’t believe it’s a problem. If I don’t hear 100% silence, I DO hear about 40% less external noise–and on the whole that’s good! I was hypersensitive to noise before.

    • I like many have tinnitus I live in the Manistee National Forest off a main hwy. After 10:00pm slight traffic I go behind house in to forest I have a place to sit,stand or lean After two or more hours I Feel Renewed and then sleep much better

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