As the world around you becomes louder and more cluttered, you may find yourself seeking out the mental and physical relaxation that silent places and silence have to offer. New research suggests that this may be a wise move as silence is much more important to your brain than you might think. Here’s why…
The Brains Ability To Generate Cells May Be A Matter of Silence
Brain, Structure and Function published a 2013 study on mice that used different types of noise and silence, monitoring the effect that sound and silence had on brains of mice. Silence was intended to be the control in the study, but scientists were amazed by what happened next.
They found that when mice were exposed to two hours of silence per day they developed new cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning.
It’s important to note that the growth of new cells in the brain doesn’t necessarily translate to tangible health benefits, but researcher Imke Kirste says that in this case, the cells appeared to become functioning neurons. “We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system.”
In this sense, silence can quite literally grow your brain.
The Brain Uses Silence to Actively Internalize and Evaluate Information
According to the findings of a 2001 study, the “default mode” of brain function shows that the brain is perpetually active, internalizing and evaluating information even when “resting.”
Follow-up research showed that default mode is also used during the process of self-reflection.
In a 2013 journal entry in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Joseph Moran et. al stated that the brain’s default mode network “is observed most closely during the psychological task of reflecting on one’s personalities and characteristics (self-reflection), rather than during self-recognition, thinking of the self-concept, or thinking about self-esteem, for example.”
When the brain rests it is able to integrate internal and external information into “a conscious workspace,” said Moran.
When you are not distracted by noise or goal-orientated tasks, there appears to be a quiet time that allows your conscious to process things. Your brain has the freedom it needs to discover its place in your internal and external world in moments of silence, and helps you view the world in an imaginative way.
As Herman Melville once wrote, “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”
Silence Relieves Stress and Tension
Studies show that long-term exposure to sounds can result in elevated levels of stress hormones. Sound waves reach the brain as electrical signals via the ear, and the body reacts to these signals even if it is sleeping. If you live in an environment that is consistently noisy, you are more likely to experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.
Silence seems to have the opposite effect of the brain to noise. While noise may cause stress and tension silence releases tension in the brain and body. A study published in the journal Heart discovered that two minutes of silence can prove to be even more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music. They based these findings of changes they noticed in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.
Silence Replenishes Cognitive Resources
Extensive research has been conducted on the effect of noise pollution on cognitive task performance. The findings reveal that noise not only affects performance at work and school, but can also lead to decreased motivation and increase the likelihood of human error.
Noise most strongly affects the ability to read, pay attention, remember, and problem solve. This lends well to the findings of various studies that have proven that children exposed to households or classrooms near airplane flight paths, railways or highways have lower reading scores and are slower in their development of cognitive and language skills.
While the above may be disconcerting, it’s important to note that the brain can restore its finite cognitive resources. 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. In silence the brain lets down its sensory guard and begins to restore some of what was lost.
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