We live in a noisy world.
Most of us live with constant, high levels of noise pollution.
Outside, we may have to deal with the drone of traffic, the whaling of sirens, and the glamor of construction. Malls, bars and the majority of our entertainment involves noise, whether it be loud music, blaring media, or the clamor of too many voices.
Indoor office and workspaces contribute to the cacophony with machines humming, overhead lights buzzing, and phones ringing.
We finally arrive home to some ‘peace and quiet’, only to discover that the noise is inescapable; emails and messages ping, kitchen gadgets grind and whir, televisions blare, and children wail.
For many of us, the constant noise is just how it is. In fact, we have become so accustomed to the background din that we are no longer conscious of it. City dwellers will complain that it’s ‘too quiet’ in the country, and many find the absence of noise uncomfortable, preferring to fill any brief moments of silence that may occur with music or background television.
But all of this noise is having a powerful physical effect on our brains and bodies. And it’s not good.
The Harmful Effects of Noise
The Latin roots of the word noise, nausia (disgust or nausea) and noxia (damage or injury), gives us a clue to its effects. Science backs this up via studies that show noise, even when we are asleep or not consciously aware of it, causes the release of stress hormones.
Living in a consistently noisy environment means exposure to extremely high levels of these hormones, which in turn wreak havoc with your immune system, sleep patterns, blood pressure, heart health, and mood.
There’s also the chaos factor; noisy environments make it difficult for people to concentrate and focus. It drowns out creativity, and dampens our access to our intuition and imagination. How many times have you said or heard the phrase ‘I can’t hear myself think!’?
A study out of Cornell University by Professor Gary W. Evans (published in Psychological Science) focused on the effects of noise on school children situated close to a major airport. He discovered that the kids developed a stress response in which they adapted by blocking out not only the harmful airport noise, but other positive sounds such as speech. Professor Evans summarized his study findings by stating:
“This study is among the strongest, probably the most definitive proof that noise – even at levels that do not produce any hearing damage – causes stress and is harmful to humans.”
In 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) took a look at quantifying the harmful effects of noise in Western Europe. It concluded that not only were residents there losing years of healthy life from noise pollution, but that excessive noise was the root cause of some 3,000 heart disease deaths per year.
Later in 2011, a WHO report called noise pollution a “modern plague”, and concluded that “there is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population.”
The Benefits of Silence
As it turns out, the healing benefits of silence are every bit as quantifiable as the harm of noise.
Meditation teachers and spiritual masters have long known of the profound healing benefits of silence. It looks like science is finally catching up.
Science tells us that silence is not merely the absence of sound input; rather, the brain recognizes silence and responds in powerful ways. In particular, just two hours of silence per day can prompt new cell development in areas of the brain related to memory and sensory input. As a result, our brains are better able to make sense of our internal and external environments.
In our fast-paced, digital and media-driven world, we are bombarded by a near constant stream of information and sensory stimulation, much of it in the form of sound and noise. This puts an inordinate amount of strain on our pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for solving problems, making decisions, and concentrating.
In essence, we are on high alert all the time, and become mentally fatigued. Silence provides an opportunity for our tired brains to relax and replenish vital cognitive resources.
Where noise creates stress, silence relieves it. Where noise detracts from our ability to focus and think creatively, silence is the balm that restores our brains and bodies, and allows us to imagine and conceive a better life for ourselves.
Perhaps it’s time to get reacquainted with silence.