You’ve likely experienced the annoyance of unwanted noise. Whether it’s putting up with road noise, barking dogs or loud neighbors, excessive noise can be maddening. And research is starting to show that this background noise of modern life can have serious consequences on our health.
On the other hand, we’re also discovering that silence can be an easily accessed antidote to modern noise pollution. Read on to find out the health benefits of getting more silence in your life, and how to do it.
WHAT DOES NOISE DO TO YOUR BODY?
The word “noise” comes from the Latin nausea, meaning discomfort or queasiness, as well as noxia, meaning pain or injury. As early as 1859, Florence Nightingale, an English social reformer and the founder of modern nursing, wrote, “Unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care which can be inflicted either on sick or well.”
She claimed that every careless noise or unnecessary conversation could be a source of alarm, distress and loss of sleep for recovering patients. Modern studies have confirmed her statements, showing that hospital noise has a negative impact on both patients and staff.
Why do we react to noise so dramatically? Research has shown that noise has an immediate affect on your body, even while you’re sleeping. Noise activates the amygdala in your brain, which controls your “flight or fight” response. This activation causes stress hormones to be released, such as adrenalin and cortisol. And people who live in areas with high background noise are shown to have increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and even breast cancer.
Researchers suggest this may be due to a number of reasons, including the elevated levels of stress hormones caused by noise, as well as the sleep disruptions common with noise pollution, which can weaken your immune system over time.
And the risks aren’t limited to adults. According to the World Health Organization, chronic noise impairs a child’s development and may have a lifelong effect on educational attainment and overall health.
Although, research also suggests that short, periodic breaks of silence can make a big difference in counteracting the harmful effects of noise.
BENEFITS OF SILENCE
1. Supports Stress Relief
A study published in the journal Heart looked at how different types of music affect listeners. The researchers were surprised to discover that pauses in between music aided relaxation more than listening to slow, “relaxing” music. Music, regardless of its tempo, would consistently activate an arousal response in the body. Whereas, even short breaks of silence caused the greatest decrease in participants’ heart and breathing rates. This may be due to silence’s ability to calm the amygdala and decrease stress hormones.
2. Encourages Healthy Cell Growth in the Brain
The hippocampus is a part of your brain that’s vital for learning, memory and stress regulation. And periods of silence have been shown to promote new cell growth in the hippocampus in mice. This new cell growth, or plasticity, is important for healthy hippocampal function. Whereas, alterations in the hippocampus have been linked to conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, drug addiction and schizophrenia.
3. Improves Cognitive Function
One study looked at how the relocation of Munich’s airport in 2002 affected the health and cognition of local school children. When third- and fourth-grade children living near the two airport sites were tested before and after the airport move, the reading comprehension skills and long-term memory of the children near the old airport improved after the move, while the performance of children near the new airport declined.
This shows the detrimental effect of noise on cognitive abilities, but it also shows that these can be reversed when silence is restored. This may relate to how silence can decrease stress hormones in your body. As your stress responses calm down, it can allow higher functions of your brain to operate better, such as attention and concentration for learning.
4. Helps “Defragment” Your Brain
Silence is shown to activate what’s known as the default mode in your brain, which is active when you’re sitting in quiet reflection. Neuroscientists haven’t determined the exact function of your brain’s default mode, but it seems to be connected with how your brain processes and makes sense of internal and external stimuli and events.
Silent down-time gives your brain a break and allows it to process what it needs to without disruption. Down-time that activates your default mode, such as daydreaming, has also been linked to a range of benefits, including increased creativity and self-control.
HOW TO GET MORE SILENCE
There are easy ways you can counteract the detrimental effects of noise and start harnessing the benefits of silence. Even if you live in a loud, busy area, you can still create periods of peace and quiet.
Also, keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be absolute silence. Being in nature counts, as long as there aren’t a lot of unnatural sounds in the area. Traffic and airplane noise are ranked as two of the most harmful types of noise, so make sure your nature walk is off the beaten track.
Consider trying some of these other ways to cultivate more silence in your life:
- Turn off any unnecessary noise-producing electronics, such as fans, radios, screens, or even a humming computer on stand-by.
- Fix any squeaky doors or cupboards in your home.
- Visit quiet venues, such as libraries.
- Schedule periodic technology-free times.
- Meditate regularly, or go on a longer silent meditation retreat.
- Wear earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds.
- Try a new solitary hobby that requires quiet time, such as painting or gardening.
- Take occasional time-outs to simply sit and enjoy a few moments of silence.