Silence and Solitude

March 19, 2017

 

"Silence isn't empty, it's full of answers."

                                              Author unknown. 

 

 

Much has been written about "Noise Pollution" since the term was first coined by environmental psychologists and acoustic ecologists in the 1960's.  At that time, it was discovered that daily exposure to the sounds of road and air traffic was linked to a host of negative health concerns.  More specifically, researchers were able to find a correlation between daily noise exposure and heart disease, high blood pressure, hearing loss and sleep problems.  More recent research has linked noisy environments to slower cognitive function and lower reading comprehension scores in children whose classrooms were next to loud traffic intersections.  Once the rooms were soundproofed, the children's scores improved.  There is scientific speculation that the childhood learning impairments created by noisy environments are long lasting and may lead to reduced academic achievements in the long-term if the growing child is not removed from the daily noise pollution.

 

There is no question that, with increased use of gadgets and personal devices, increased travel for work and for pleasure and technological advancements in all arenas, daily life continues to become noisier.  In 1989, Gordon Hempton, an Acoustic Ecologist, identified and recorded 21 wilderness places in the state of Washington that were unsullied by sounds of road traffic, air traffic, construction or human life otherwise.  By 2014, only 3 of these sites remained quiet sites and Mr. Hempton now states that there are only 12 "quiet places" in the entire United States of America.  I imagine we may fare somewhat better here in Canada where our population is less dense and with more "undeveloped" territory in many parts, but am unable to provide any specific data. Noise experts are also growing increasingly concerned about the effects of perpetual sound on the health, healing and wellbeing of patients in hospital settings.  With advancements in medical technology, there is much more electronic monitoring occurring and every single gadget makes an auditory sound to signal trouble or merely to signal ongoing monitoring. The World Health Organization recommends that sound levels in patient rooms not exceed 35 decibels, yet hospital noise levels continue to rise over the last decade with the average noise level currently sitting at 72 decibels in the daytime and 60 decibels at night.  The sounds include alarmed monitors, ventilators, human voices and sirens.

 

SILENCE: BEYOND NEUTRAL

 

Silence is not merely neutral in its effects on humans and rodents.  Scientists have discovered much about silence in the last two decades.  Much of the information gathered about silence was initially discovered by accident while researching the effects of music and new noises on human and rodent behaviour, physiology and psychology.  As a result of these incidental findings, researchers are more recently looking into the positive effects of prolonged and repeated silence on human and rodent physiological responses and behaviours.

 

1) Silence induces Relaxation

 

In a 2006 study by Luciano Bernardi published in Heart Journal, silence was discovered to be more relaxing than listening to "relaxing" music as blood pressure and blood circulation changes to the brain responded with greater change to silence.  The author played short tracks of music, in six styles, for the study participants and observed the physiological responses.  A two-minute pause was inserted into the musical sequences but silence was not intended to be part of the stimulus being monitored.  Nonetheless, the researchers noted that the physiological responses to the pause produced deeper relaxation in the subjects than any of the musical stimuli.

 

2) Silence Induces Neural Regeneration in the Brain...Possible Improvements in Memory, Learning and Emotion

 

In a 2013 Study, Imke Kriste of Duke University was interested in studying the effects of auditory stimuli on the brain cells of mice.  Specifically, she wanted to look at which type of auditory stimuli would trigger regenerative effects on brain cells.  She divided the mice into four groups and exposed them to music, white noise or the sound of crying baby mice.  She used the fourth group as the control group for baseline comparison and these mice were exposed to daily silence.  Much to the researchers' surprise all four groups demonstrated positive effects in neural regeneration, but only the silence created long lasting effects.  Two hours of daily silence led to the development of new brain cells in the area known as the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with memory, learning and emotion.

 

Meditation, which I would refer to as Structured or Intentional Silence has been shown to offer a host of other benefits worthy of a blog posting on its own. 

 

SOLITUDE

 

Finding time to be alone and sit quietly is becoming increasingly difficult in our world of constant and instantaneous connection.  Years back, if we wanted to communicate with someone living in Vancouver, we would hand write them a letter.  The simple act of sitting to compose the letter would have provided some time for solitude as we composed our thoughts and put them to paper.  Today, we would simply FaceTime our distant friend or arrange for a Skype session and there is no need to sit quietly to compose our thoughts.  If we needed to go to pick up a loaf of bread, chances are we would enjoy a peaceful quiet walk to the local bakery.  Today we live in a world of constant "connection" and even if we did walk to the grocery store, we would likely use the ten-minute walk as an opportunity to multitask and reach out and connect with someone rather than simply enjoying our time alone. It has been reported that smartphone users check and use their devices on average every 6.5 minutes.  That amounts to approximately 150x per day.  When we are alone in a grocery line up, at a red light, many of us cannot resist the urge to check in on Facebook, Instagram or to send out a snapchat or a text message.  Almost every minor moment that could offer solitude has been replaced with social media.  Sherry Turkle, a licensed clinical psychologist and author is an expert on culture and modern mobile technology and social networking.  She advocates for daily "turning off", abstaining from what she calls our addiction to "social snacking" activities like Facebook, texting, Instagram, snapchat and tweeting.  She says, "Being alone is starting to feel like a problem we have to solve".  And as we become increasingly digitally connected we are not really present to one another or to ourselves.  She offers up an interesting discussion in her 20 minute TED TALK "Connected but Not Alone" It seems we have become so uncomfortable with silence and solitude that we would rather receive electric shocks than sit quietly with our own thoughts. In a 2014 Study that is famously referenced in many articles about our capacity for quiet time, Timothy Wilson et al found that participants were so bothered by being alone in a quiet room that they chose to administer electric shocks to themselves rather than just sit patiently with their thoughts.

 

SEEKING OUT SOLITUDE

 

I often refer to myself as a "socially well-adjusted introvert".  I recognize that I have a higher than normal need for quiet alone time.  I do love to interact with friends, peers, family and patients, but I would choose a walk in the forest over a party any time of the year.  I recognize that I need to spend time alone to feel grounded, recharged, connected and properly nurtured to engage in the multitude of relationships that make up my "network". 

 

Solitude offers many health and quality of life benefits and we must find ways to carve out time to be alone if we hope to have stronger, more gratifying personal relationships and if we hope to have a better understanding of ourselves.

 

THE BENEFITS OF SOLITUDE

 

1)  Freedom to engage in personal interests and desired activities - When we are alone, we can do what we want, how we want without having to consider the desires and expectations of others. 

 

2) Decreased Self Consciousness - we have the freedom to experience ourselves directly, without the concern of ourselves as the object of another person's thoughts and actions.

 

3)  Improved Self Discovery and Transformation - when we are alone, we may experience changes in our self-concept as we have removed all relationships and objects that define our identities (Storr 1989).  As well, research into solitude has revealed that spending time alone facilitates self-reflection. This allows people to gain a better understanding of their current situation and priorities (Koch 1999).

 

4) Increased Creativity and Productivity - in a 1996 study by Csikszentmihalyi, it was demonstrated that adolescents who do not spend enough time alone fail to develop their creative talents.  Similarly, psychologist Hans Eysenck observed that introversion fosters creativity by concentrating the mind on the tasks at hand, without the distraction of social engagement.  Neuroscientist Earl Miller says our brains are not really built for multitasking and we will find that we have improved quality and efficiency of our work when we spend some time alone on a regular basis.

 

Although you may have difficulty carving out hours of alone time, it is truly quite simple to give yourself at least 20-30 minutes of silence and solitude each day.  Turn off your devices, get up earlier than your household or stay up later, take a hot bath, close the door to your bedroom, escape to your backyard or porch, lie down for a 20 minute Savasana (Corpse pose) or use your lunch hour for quiet rebooting. 

 

However you choose to find it, be sure to enjoy some well deserved silence and solitude!

Anna 

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