The Underestimated Benefits of Silence

The Underestimated Benefits of Silence

In this world of overwhelming noise, silence may just be the cure you need.

Collins defines silence as the “absence of sound of noise.” Oxford agrees, adding the terms, “the fact or state of abstaining from speech.” The lack of noise, however, isn't the only profound element of this word. It can also be stillness, such as a pause from a musical meter, a quick jaunt to your room to escape your daily chaos, or a graceful restraint to avoid words from breaking out of your lips like a dam. It is a symptom of tranquillity, of calmness, and perhaps an important factor that will bring harmony back in the midst of today's loud, chaotic generation.

Noise may have adverse effects on one's cognition and health. The American Psychological Association printed a 2011 cover story by Amy Novotney, tackling the problems associated with today's sounds. Late-night parties and early-morning lawn mowing may seem like a usual routine to some, but it could actually be deadly. "Noise pollution," as the World Health Organization coins it, "may lead to higher blood pressure and fatal heart attacks."

This also cemented several researches associating chronic noise and slower child development. "There is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population," concluded the report.

Trains zooming, cars honking, airplanes taking flight; even the lightest field noise can build up one's stress, keeping them awake, even at times they don’t have to. The noise has become embedded in one’s lifestyle that finding the golden silence – as a popular adage points out – has been quite difficult.

A Meditative Approach

Luckily for some, silence has been woven deeply into their culture, as Sara Bortoluz wrote on The Elephant Journal. On the piece where she peels the layers of the Japanese Buddhism, she excerpts the 2007 paper “The Cultural Significance of Silence in Japanese Communication.” where the writer Takie Lebra explains the Japan’s many facets of silence. Lebra explains it could mean many things: truthfulness, embarrassment, social discretion or defiance.

The first of the four is greatly utilized in Zen Buddhism. According to the religion, enlightenment can only be reached through silence, as teachings can only be understood through contemplation. As monks allow themselves to bask in complete stillness, they gain balance and wisdom through introspection and self-cultivation. This is beautifully pointed out in The Flower Sermon:


Toward the end of his life, the Buddha took his disciples to a quiet pond for instruction. As they had done so many times before, the Buddha’s followers sat in a small circle around him, and waited for the teaching.
But this time the Buddha had no words. He reached into the muck and pulled up a lotus flower. And he held it silently before them, its roots dripping mud and water.
The disciples were greatly confused. Buddha quietly displayed the lotus to each of them. In turn, the disciples did their best to expound upon the meaning of the flower: what it symbolized, and how it fit into the body of Buddha’s teaching. When at last the Buddha came to his follower Mahakashapa, the disciple suddenly understood. He smiled and began to laugh. Buddha handed the lotus to Mahakashapa and began to speak.
“What can be said, I have said to you,” smiled the Buddha, “and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashapa.”
Mahakashapa became Buddha’s successor from that day forward.

A Cultural Advantage

It's not only Japan. Finland is also taking a step towards inspiring stillness. The traditionally-shy Finnish now use their quietness – often regarded negatively – as a form of tourism. American academic Michael Berry is one of the believers of this approach. “A Finn often demonstrates interest by listening, while an American asks and interrupts,” says Berry, who runs communication courses at the University of Turku. Berry notes that silence is not equal to low self-esteem. “Finnish silence is a method of preserving harmony with nature, oneself and others. It's natural for Finns to move between fluent active listening and speaking while respecting others. A Finn thinks profoundly before expressing himself on a subject of importance.”

But silence doesn't mean a complete hush. University of Finland's soundscape researcher Noora Vikman breaks the regular concept of silence. “It can also refer to soundscapes where individual sounds are clearly discernible. That's possible in a natural environment, but in major cities sounds blend into a continuous bustle,” she explains. With this, she adds that silence may mean performing slow-paced activities in a more relaxed environment.

Visit Finland puts an emphasis on stillness. “Finland offers a chance for downshifting even in the heart of the city, and untouched nature is never more than half an hour away. Stay at a cottage, enjoy a sauna and listen to birds warbling across the lake. Take in the sound of quiet. Hear yourself think,” the tourism website smartly promotes.

The Unspoken Benefits of Silence 

In Psychology Today, Atalanta Beaumont shares how silence can benefit one's health. “Silence has been found to stimulate brain growth,” Beaumont begins, alluding to the 2013 study that found that 2 hours of silence may lead to new brain cell creation – especially in the learning and recall sections of the brain. “It could also relieve tension in two minutes,” she adds, pointing out that noise affects one's stress levels and therefore increases cortisol and adrenaline.

Periods of silence in the day can help enhance sleep and lessen the chances of insomnia; this means that winding down should not only be done before going to bed. Silence also encourages awareness and personal reflection, as Conor O'Shea wrote in Lifehack. Lastly, lowering sensory helps one restore his or her cognitive capabilities. Beaumont quotes, “When we allow ourselves this quiet reflective time we find that, as Herman Melville wrote, ‘All profound things and emotion of things are proceeded and attended by silence.’”

Silence also leads to greater emotional maturity. In his column, Alex Lickerman M.D. wrote that silence gives one the “ability to listen effectively.” “Silence won't just bring you a new skill; it will bring you new knowledge. Remember that listening is far more powerful than speaking.”

It will also help one get a clearer view of another's heart. “Silence gets you out of the way and creates a space others will fill in with themselves,” Lickerman implies. “If you employ silence to listen carefully to not only what people say but how they say it, you'll find they'll give themselves away to you constantly and enable you to understand their character far sooner than you would be able to otherwise.”

Silence also prepares your system for better self-control and wisdom. “Making silence your first response gives you a chance to reflect before you speak, increasing the likelihood that what you say and do will be on target, intelligent, and useful,” he says.

How to Achieve Silence Amidst the Modern Noises

Noise doesn't have to be the loud sounds of vehicles zooming through the highway. It could be small, interrupting beeps, like your phone ringing, plates crashing, children fighting about which candy is theirs. While there is no secret dimension to escape from all these (and no portal to get there), you can achieve your much-deserved peace by two-minute silent pause.

It could be as easy as sitting still. In 2006, University of Pavia medical researcher Luciano Bernardi observed human subjects while playing short musical tracks of various styles. A two-minute pause was inserted to all sequences, and these paused produced a deeper state of calm than any kind of music.

Duke University biologist Imke Kirst seconded the idea by performing her own experiment. Three groups of adult mice were subjected into three types of sounds - white noise, music and infant mouse calls. A fourth group was made to listen to two full hours of silence. The first three groups showcased positive yet temporal effects, but what Kirste was looking for was found in the fourth group. After a daily two-hour silence, the mice showcased signs of new brain cell development in the hippocampus.

A walk in the park, a sip of your favourite tea in your bedroom, or a good sleep – silence rejuvenates your mind and heart in many ways. So go on, turn off your phone and take the time off, and allow your body to bask in the sweet serenity of quiet.