We all know too much noise isn’t good for us—which is why we call it ‘noise pollution’. Noise raises the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline in the body, leading to higher rates of heart failure, strokes, high blood pressure and immune problems. Children who live near airports, railway lines or highways are found to be slower in cognitive development and language skills. A study published in the European Heart Journal found that long-term exposure to high levels of noise dramatically boosts the risk of a heart attack—50 per cent higher for men and almost 300 per cent for women!
Though noise can be deadly, the opposite—silence—is often viewed by Western medicine in a negative way, symbolic of weakness or repression. Helen E. Lees, author of the 2012 book Silence in Schools, attributes this perception to the way silence is used as a retributive tool in childhood. “Children have traditionally been made to be silent because it suits the adult. Not conforming, through silence, to the adult’s wishes brings recrimination, punishment and sadness for the child. The result is that children learn to associate silence with fear, repression, authority and a lack of freedom that hurts them,” she writes.
On the contrary, she says, “positive strong silence” calms the mind, puts a person in touch with their body, shows up dominant thoughts offering a chance to address concerns, creates a space to relax in or a moment to change directions, and allows re-energising. Her theory finds support in a study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, which found that students almost always recalled lessons better when they’d studied them in silence instead of background music.
In fact, silence is inherent in music too, a point brought out by Graham Turner in his eminently readable 2013 book The Power of Silence. The former journalist traversed continents and delved into various spiritual and religious traditions to uncover the benefits and significance of silence for them. From the Vipassana technique in India to the Gethsemani Trappist monastery in the US, from the stillness of the Swiss Alps to the silences in Quaker meetings, Turner found that silence can be meaningful and healing—whether for its cathartic value in psychotherapy (some of the most important gains in counselling occur in moments of silence), or using the age-old technique of meditation.
Research on meditation shows many health benefits, including reduced heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rates, besides longer attention spans. A study in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging found that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in grey-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. Ramesh Manocha, author of Silence Your Mind and a senior lecturer in the department of psychiatry at the University of Sydney, found that meditators seemed to fundamentally modify the way they generated negative emotions in response to environment stressors. Asthmatics who practised ‘mental-silence’ meditation not only showed psychological improvements higher than those in regular stress-management programmes, but also reduction in the irritability of the airways. “Benefits occur at a neurophysiological level rather than being just a suppression of emotion,” Manocha concludes.
Besides meditation, you can also incorporate silence in everyday activities. Here’s how:
- Leave longer gaps during conversations
- Listen more
- Create silent events and tasks in your schedule
- Introduce pauses in your speech
- Model calm behaviour
- Dedicate a silent space in your environment to sit in
- Notice the silence in the middle of a busy day
- Spend time in nature simply listening to ambient sounds.
What you discover may surprise, and change, you.