Science Says Silence Is much More Important Than You Think

12-01-2017The Well

Advent is the time of year that we wait in contemplation for Christ’s coming and enjoy the Christmas Season and in that waiting, here is something else worth contemplating: Silence can be beneficial for our brains!

In 1859, the British nurse and social reformer Florence Nightingale wrote, “Unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that can be inflicted on sick or well.” Every careless clatter or banal bit of banter, Nightingale argued, can be a source of alarm, distress, and loss of sleep for recovering patients.

Surprisingly, recent research supports some of Nightingale’s claims. In the mid 20th century, epidemiologists discovered correlations between high blood pressure and chronic noise sources like highways and airports. Later research seemed to link noise to increased rates of sleep loss, heart disease, and tinnitus. (It’s this line of research that hatched the 1960s-era notion of “noise pollution,” a name that implicitly refashions transitory noises as toxic and long-lasting.)

Studies of human physiology help explain how an invisible phenomenon can have such a pronounced physical effect. Sound waves vibrate the bones of the ear, which transmit movement and converts physical vibrations into electrical signals that the brain receives. The body reacts immediately and powerfully to these signals, even in the middle of deep sleep. Neurophysiological research suggests that noises first activate clusters of neurons located in the temporal lobes of the brain, associated with memory formation and emotion. The activation prompts an immediate release of stress hormones like cortisol. People who live in consistently loud environments often experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.

So we know what silence doesn’t do—it doesn’t wake, annoy, or kill us—but what does it do? When Florence Nightingale attacked noise as a “cruel absence of care,” she also insisted that quiet is a part of care, as essential for patients as medication or sanitation.

As recent as 2010, research and studies showed that two hours of silence a day prompted cell development in the hippocampus region of the brain. Conditions like dementia and depression have been associated with decreasing rates of neurogenesis in the hippocampus. If a link between silence and neurogenesis could be established in humans, perhaps neurologists could find a therapeutic use for silence.

Time will tell with further research just how silence can improve our brain function and decrease diseases of the brain. One proven fact is true in our busy and hectic lives. With all sorts of external forces, like sound bombarding our system, we are truly unable to just be with ourselves, to be with our thoughts and feelings, to know ourselves.

Freedom from noise and goal-directed tasks unites the quiet without and within, allowing our conscious workspace to do its thing, to weave ourselves into the world, to discover where we fit in and who we are as individuals. That’s the power of silence.

If you have questions or concerns regarding your health or the health of a family member, feel free to contact Kathy Ford RN/Parish Nurse at pastoralcare@hscc.us or 630-922-0081.

Statements on research obtained through “Nautilus” a neuroscience magazine- 14 August 2014 edition

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