When did you last sit in a room without the TV on, or take a train without your headphones in? It’s rare for anyone to just sit in silence nowadays, but it could be as important to your health as eating the right food and regular exercise.
Why? Because excess noise is bad for you — it’s been linked to stress, reduced immunity, heart disease, insomnia and more. In fact, your body has a direct reaction to noise — or rather, a lack of it.
This fact was discovered by accident back in 2006 during an Italian study on the effects of types of music on the body. Interestingly, the researchers discovered that the participants relaxed more during the two minutes of silence when they were changing tracks than they did when listening to the music itself.
“When the brain hears sounds, it has to determine their meaning, which involves the amygdala, the fearful part of the brain,” explains neuroscientist Dr Fiona Kerr, from the University of Adelaide. “Even when you’re asleep, your brain’s sorting through the noise you hear. But during silence, the amygdala’s activity slows, you relax and stress-hormone levels fall.”
As the amygdala calms down, other parts of your brain get busy. “The lack of stimulation and distraction during silence puts the brain into abstraction mode,” says Dr Kerr.
“It starts to wander, it plays out unfinished tasks, thoughts get consolidated and part of this process is the production of new neurons.”
In fact, two hours of silence (like what you’d get at a meditation or silent retreat) has been shown in studies on mice to trigger the production of new cells in the hippocampus region of the brain — the area linked to learning, remembering and emotions.
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But the benefits of silence aren’t just biological — the mental-filing process mentioned also restores and replenishes. “You recharge yourself with silence — even the biggest extrovert needs some time in peace and quiet or you’ll burn out,” says Perth-based simplicity coach Eve Broenland.
“The people I see who ignore this are the ones who are most overwhelmed, who are struggling making even the simplest decisions and who simply aren’t happy.”
Lose the fear, then the noise
So why isn’t everyone booking in a chunk of silent time, whether on a holiday or at home? Because as much as your mind needs silence, it can fear it, too.
In one famous trial from the US’s University of Virginia, people sitting in silence with nothing to distract them for 15 minutes were given a button that delivered an electric shock. Even though all participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity, more than 65 per cent of the men and 25 per cent of the women willingly pushed the shock button to distract themselves from their thoughts and their boredom.
“Silence can be very confronting and it can take some getting used to,” explains Broenland. One way to do this, according to Broenland, is to adopt the principle of three levels of silence. “The first level is simply exposing yourself to the lack of sound while you do other things — maybe just sitting and enjoying a cup of coffee with no other stimulation. The second is adding no movement — so, you actually sit completely still in silence. The third level also sees you being able to ignore your thoughts — and this is when silence tips into meditation.”
Find your peace
Dr Kerr expands on this idea: “Silence doesn’t need to mean the absence of all sound, it simply means the absence of stimulating or distracting sound. You’re merely trying to avoid anything that causes your brain to put up its sensory guard that triggers stress or that keeps it busy.”
As such, if you find doing nothing in complete silence too confronting, she suggests a first step can be simply not putting on music or the TV when you come home and cooking in peace, or taking a walk without your headphones in. You can also seek out places that lend themselves to stillness, such as libraries, art galleries, museums, spas or churches, and just sit for a bit, taking things in while enjoying the peace.
It may also help not to plan your moments of silence and to just grab them when you realise that all around you is still. In the same study by the University of Virginia research team, one of the elements was a series of ‘thinking periods’, where participants sat in an empty room and were told to let their minds wander.
Afterwards, they were asked to rate their experience. Many said they did not enjoy being ‘forced’ to think on command and enjoyed spontaneous moments of silence and daydreaming far more.
“I think your mind is built to engage in the world,” explains lead researcher of the study Timothy Wilson. “So when you don’t give it anything to focus on, it’s kind of hard to know what to do.”
Become a silence expert
Once you do get used to doing things in silence, that’s when it’s time to actively focus on spending just a few minutes sitting still in the quiet. “If it helps to have other relaxing cues around you, like a lit candle, that’s fine. You train your brain to get used to noise and you can train it to get used to silence, too,” says Dr Kerr.
Yes, thoughts are going to come into your head, just notice them, try not to dwell on them. “The default-mode network that you switch on when you eliminate distraction is strongly associated with self-reflection,” says Dr Kerr.
“Personally I feel this element of being in silence is one of its most powerful benefits. The constant amount of distraction you’re exposed to nowadays creates short-term patterns of thinking that mean you don’t focus on issues you need to address. Silence expands the mind and the thoughts. It makes you creative and encourages you to see the big picture. It can change everything.”
And remember, all it takes is just two to three minutes of silence a day to start to show positive effects.
Trust us, you can manage that.