Picture your typical day: waking up to an alarm, catching your favourite morning radio show during breakfast, navigating through traffic with podcasts in your ears, and spending the day in a bustling office. The noise doesn’t stop as you return home, engaging in family dinner conversations and catching up with the news before bedtime. And the next day, you do the same thing all over again.
Today, our lives are noisier than ever, with estimates suggesting that noise pollution in society is doubling or even tripling every three decades. However, the growing noise, according to experts in neuroscience, psychology, and cardiology, may pose a significant threat to our health and cognition. Surprisingly, the remedy might be found in silence, a factor that’s even more crucial than we often realize.
The dangers of noise pollution
Before delving into the benefits of silence, it’s crucial to understand the risks associated with noise pollution. As Mathias Basner, a sound processing and rest specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, puts it, noises cause stress.
“The body will excrete stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that lead to changes in the composition of our blood – and of our blood vessels, which actually have been shown to be stiffer after a single night of noise exposure,” he told Time Magazine.
How silence benefits your brain
Conversely, silence, or the absence of noise, can offer numerous health benefits. Imke Kirste, a former professor at Duke University Medical School, conducted a groundbreaking study in 2015, examining the impact of different sounds on mice brains. Placing mice in nearly silent chambers for two hours a day, the team exposed them to white noise, mice pup sounds, Mozart, ambient noise, and complete silence. Surprisingly, silence had the most profound effect, promoting the highest growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, a key memory-related brain region.
Kirste found that "trying to hear in silence" stimulates the auditory cortex, accelerating the growth of valuable brain cells. Beyond inducing relaxation, silence can serve as a positive stressor, known as “eustress”, which, unlike everyday stress, can be beneficial for brain growth.
Building a healthier brain
One accessible way to incorporate more silence in your daily life is through meditation. A 2010 Harvard study discovered that eight weeks of daily meditation boosted brain areas associated with memory and vision. The hippocampus, in charge of memory, thickened, while the prefrontal cortex, involved in vision, planning, and emotional regulation, expanded. Additionally, the amygdala, linked with fear, anxiety, and stress, showed reduced cell volume.
In a world that grows louder every day, discovering the power of silence might just be the key to unlocking a healthier and sharper you. If you're inclined to explore meditation, check out the New York Times’ latest recommendations for the top 4 meditation apps of 2023.