Silence is Good for Your Brain

If too much noise causes things like stress, imagine what silence can do.

pretty female commuter daydreaming on bus

In recent weeks, I’ve found myself waiting somewhere that I haven’t in months: The bus stop. Last week, I found myself waiting and then walking to ultimately wait some more, a total of about 35 minutes. It was worth with it when the city bus pulled up to the stop, and as I’m continuing to learn, offered an experience more valuable than I may have initially realized.

The constant stopping is a given, so is the eventual crowding, but those realities are easy to look past when I weigh them against the scenery I get to take in, the natural light that I realize will grow shorter and nonexistent in the coming months, and the silence.

The silence, or something very close to it, is what I relish most about these rides. Most everyone is focused on something whether it’s their phone, a newspaper, a book or on the outside world as it rolls by and we roll along with it.

I love this experience and consider it far better than the subway. I regret not giving myself this joy sooner. My bus route to work is akin to walking by the beach in the morning. And after work it’s something like slipping into a bath before bed. It’s stressless, calming, and it’s moments like these, writer Daniel Gross said in a July 2016 Nautilus article, that are actually good for the brain.

In the piece, Gross explored what researchers studying the impact of sound have discovered about its absence. Needless to say, if too much noise is harmful to people — creating stress, causing hypertension and even affecting the rhythm and rate of one’s heart — then imagine what a little quiet can do for the brain and the body.

Silence can be nourishing. Consider the following findings.

  1. Silence can create new brain cells. In a 2013 study to find out what sounds prompted the creation of new brain cells in mice, Duke University researcher Imke Kirste discovered silence, which she had considered a control in the experiment, made an impact of its own. She found that two hours of silence per day prompted the growth of new cells in the hippocampus, the region of the brain related to the formation of memory involving the senses.
  2. Silence forces the brain to create its owns “sounds.” Our brains don’t shut down or slow down when we stop receiving auditory information. “In the absence of sound, the brain produces internal representations of sound,” neurology of sound expert Robert Zatorre told Gross. Think about that song you know really well — that jam that’s finally up in your music streaming app — but suddenly the song stops because of some weird processing delay. Notice how you continue the line or melody without missing a beat? That’s your brain retrieving a memory.
  3. Silence encourages self-reflection. This is a given, but viewed through a neuroscience lens, researchers have found that the “resting” brain, when not picking between and processing a lot of external stimuli, is indeed active, gathering and sorting information. In default mode, the brain “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,” researcher Joseph Moran and colleagues wrote in 2013.

There’s still more research needed on this topic, but silence has been shown to have value for the brain. That’s not the case with a lot of noise, shown to impair kids’ ability to learn and adults’ ability to perform at work. There’s no getting around how increasingly noisy our world is becoming, but here’s hoping that our own experiences and research highlighted by people like Gross will encourage us all to think about how we protect our peace and the peace of the people in our companies.

If silence can make room for new connections and self-reflection, things invaluable in life and in business, it would stand to reason that its presence in the workplace is as important as the sounds of work.