Silence at the lake

“The greatest revelation is silence” is how the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu described the power of deep stillness. We often only notice how beautiful and relieving silence can be once it is here. When the neighbour stops mowing the lawn or the children are finally in bed. Silence is a basic prerequisite for a healthy life. Because relaxation, restful sleep and inner contemplation are impossible without the necessary tranquillity.

In today’s world, it is unfortunately far too seldom truly quiet. Noise and sounds are constantly coming at us from everywhere. Most of the time we don’t even notice how high the noise level is around us. Reason enough to consciously engage with silence. In this article we explore what effect silence has on us humans and why it plays such a big role in mediation. What is the difference between inner and outer silence and how can we combine the two in a meaningful way?

Noise causes the brain to alert

A crackling in the bushes. An unexpected thump. Perhaps a possible attacker? Unknown or unpleasant sounds immediately put our brain on alert, even if we can objectively assess that a situation is not actually threatening. Our instincts nevertheless prepare us for a potentially dangerous situation. The body’s stress reaction is set in motion. We briefly become more efficient and vigilant.

This mechanism is active even when we are asleep. Our brain continuously scans the surrounding sounds for possible dangers. If it is too loud at night, it quickly robs us of sleep. We can’t fall asleep or sleep less restfully. [1]

Noise pollution – Where can we still find silence?

Our modern life is actually constantly accompanied by a large background noise. Just close your eyes for a moment where you are and listen to the surrounding sounds. The noise of the street, a radio in the background, construction noise, children’s noise or the smartphone in your pocket buzzing for attention. It is rarely really quiet. A permanently high noise level also means permanently high stress and can make you really ill. It is not without reason that the World Health Organisation (WHO) considers exposure to various sources of noise to be one of the major health hazards of the 21st century.[2]

One could almost think that silence has been lost to us in our fast-paced world. Many people are therefore specifically looking for time out from all the noise. An excursion into nature, for example, can work wonders. Monasteries also often offer days of silence and people take long journeys to find relaxation there. But we can also cultivate silence for ourselves at home. For example, through silent meditation.

Silence – A rejuvenating cure for the brain?

The effects of silence have not long been the subject of research. However, initial scientific findings suggest what positive effects phases of acoustic silence can have on us. In 2015, a group of scientists investigated the effect of different sounds on mice. Ten mice each were exposed to one of five soundscapes for two hours. The researchers examined the effect of noise, calls of young animals, piano music, silence and normal laboratory noises.

In all mice, except those exposed to the noise, an increased production of immature neurons in the brain could be detected in the first 24 hours. Immature nerve cells are needed to be able to react mentally to new environmental stimuli. After one week, the observed effect was only seen in the mice that spent two hours each day in silence. The researchers therefore assume that a larger number of new nerve cells are created during periods of silence, which has a positive effect on our mental receptivity. Although the experiment was only conducted on mice, the results can probably be transferred to humans as well. [3]

Rest and relaxation in nature

Evolutionarily, humans have developed in harmony with nature. The peaceful background noises we hear while walking in a light summer forest or a green spring meadow do not disturb the peace we feel in such places. One could say that natural sounds such as birdsong or the pattering of raindrops are part of the sound of silence. Today, these very sounds of nature enjoy great popularity on YouTube, Spotify and co. as a means of relaxation. Such natural background sounds are not classified as a danger by our alarm system. We can surrender to silence and relax.

You can certainly confirm from your own experience that spending time in nature has a recreational effect. Scientific findings even suggest that an excursion into nature strengthens our memory function, at least for a short time. A similar effect can be observed as in the mouse experiment in the previous section. The scientific explanation: If we are bombarded with too many stimuli, our mental capacity is exhausted at some point. In a low-stimulus environment that contains few distractions, these resources can recharge. A stay in nature fulfils these conditions. [4]

Silent meditation as an antipole

Traditional forms of meditation deal a lot with silence and its effect on us humans. When meditating, we can experience two types of silence. Outer silence and inner silence. The outer silence is that which surrounds us. Nature, with its own sound. With all those sounds that our brain does not classify as dangerous but relaxing and where our alarm system is not activated.

The outer silence allows us to look inwards. There is often just as much going on in our world of thoughts and feelings as in a busy city. Meditation gradually helps us to silence the inner noise and to order our thoughts and feelings. We reach a peaceful inner silence. From meditation, we transfer the calm meditative mind to other areas of our lives. With such a mindset, we can better face all challenges and are not so easily thrown off track. This is called mindful living. [5]

Do you want to try meditation yourself to achieve more inner calmness and tranquillity? The sonamedic app offers you a wide range of meditations for all situations in life. You can find tips and tricks for getting started here.

The mixture makes the difference – experience silence more intensively

Music and silence

As we have already learned in this article, periods of silence make our brain more receptive to new stimuli. But the effect is not one-sided, as Italian researchers were able to observe. They actually wanted to study the effect of different pieces of music on the cardiovascular system, i.e. on breathing, blood pressure and heartbeat. They built a two-minute phase of silence into each piece of music to test the effect of the musical stimuli against a low-stimulus situation. During the phases in which the pieces of music were paused, the test persons showed a clear reduction in breathing rate, heartbeat and blood pressure. In other words, they relaxed.

Surprisingly, the relaxation effect was even significantly greater than in measurements taken at the beginning of the experiment, which had been carried out before the first piece of music as a control. The music thus had a reinforcing effect on the relaxing effect of silence. The cause of this phenomenon lies in the functioning of the nerve cells in the brain that process acoustic stimuli. If there is a continuous acoustic stimulus, the processing nerve cells slowly retract. We perceive the stimulus less intensively over time. [6]

Application in medicine

This effect is also responsible, for example, for the fact that some people can sleep with the TV on. The sounds of the television are no longer perceived as acutely threatening. At the same time, the background noise has another effect. It drowns out sounds that we would otherwise perceive as danger. This is one of the reasons why music helps many people to fall asleep.

In medicine, the tinting of disturbing sounds is used, for example, in the treatment of tinnitus. The disturbing tinnitus is no longer directly perceptible for patients. [7]

List of sources

[1] Hopfgarten von, Anna: Ruhe bitte, in Gehirn und Geist: Stille. Warum unser Gehirn akustische Auszeiten braucht.

[2] WHO: WHO-Leitlinien für Umgebungslärm für die Europäische Region. Online.

[3] Kirste, Imke/ Nicola, Zeina / Kronenberg, Golo / Walker, Tara /Liu, Robert / Kempermann, Gerd: Is silence golden? Effects of auditory stimuli and their absence on adult hippocampal neurogenesis, 2013, Online.

[4] Hopfgarten von, Anna: Ruhe bitte, in Gehirn und Geist: Stille. Warum unser Gehirn akustische Auszeiten braucht.

[5] Polenski, Hinnerk: Warum ist Stille in der Meditation wichtig, 16.11.2019, Online.

[6] Bernadi, Luciano / Porta, Cesare / Casucci, Gaia / Balsamo, Rosella / Bernadi, Nicolo / Fogari, Roberto / Sleight, Peter: Dynamic Interactions Between Musical, Cardiovascular, and Cerebral Rhythms in Humans, 2009, Online.

[7] Hopfgarten von, Anna: Ruhe bitte, in Gehirn und Geist: Stille. Warum unser Gehirn akustische Auszeiten braucht.

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