Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

In 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board ran a campaign that used silence as a marketing ‘product’. They sought to entice people to visit Finland and experience the beauty of this silent land. They released a series of photographs of single figures in the nature and used the slogan “Silence, Please”. A tag line was added by Simon Anholt, an international country branding consultant, “No talking, but action.”

Eva Kiviranta the manager of the social media for VisitFinland.com said: “We decided, instead of saying that it’s really empty and really quiet and nobody is talking about anything here, let’s embrace it and make it a good thing”.

Finland may be on to something very big. You could be seeing the very beginnings of using silence as a selling point as silence may be becoming more and more attractive. As the world around becomes increasingly loud and cluttered you may find yourself seeking out the reprieve that silent places and silence have to offer. This may be a wise move as studies are showing that silence is much more important to your brains than you might think.

Regenerated brain cells may be just a matter of silence.

A 2013 study on mice published in the journal Brain, Structure and Function used differed types of noise and silence and monitored the effect the sound and silence had on the brains of the mice.[1] The silence was intended to be the control in the study but what they found was surprising. The scientists discovered that when the mice were exposed to two hours of silence per day they developed new cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning.

The growth of new cells in the brain does not necessarily translate to tangible health benefits. However, in this instance, researcher Imke Kirste says that the cells appeared to become functioning neurons.

“We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system.”

In this sense silence can quite literally grow your brain.

The brain is actively internalizing and evaluating information during silence

A 2001 study defined a “default mode” of brain function that showed that even when the brain was “resting” it was perpetually active internalizing and evaluating information.

Follow-up research found that the default mode is also used during the process of self-reflection. In 2013, in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Joseph Moran et al. wrote, the brain’s default mode network “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.

“When the brain rests it is able to integrate internal and external information into “a conscious workspace,” said Moran and colleagues.

When you are not distracted by noise or goal-orientated tasks, there appears to be a quiet time that allows your conscious workspace to process things. During these periods of silence, your brain has the freedom it needs to discover its place in your internal and external world.

The default mode helps you think about profound things in an imaginative way.

As Herman Melville once wrote,[2]

“All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”

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Silence relieves stress and tension.

It has been found that noise can have a pronounced physical effect on our brains resulting in elevated levels of stress hormones. The sound waves reach the brain as electrical signals via the ear. The body reacts to these signals even if it is sleeping. It is thought that the amygdalae (located in the temporal lobes of the brain) which is associated with memory formation and emotion is activated and this causes a release of stress hormones. If you live in a consistently noisy environment that you are likely to experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.

A study that was published in 2002 in Psychological Science (Vol. 13, No. 9) examined the effects that the relocation of Munich’s airport had on children’s health and cognition. Gary W. Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University notes that children who are exposed to noise develop a stress response that causes them to ignore the noise. What is of interest is that these children not only ignored harmful stimuli they also ignored stimuli that they should be paying attention to such as speech. 

“This study is among the strongest, probably the most definitive proof that noise – even at levels that do not produce any hearing damage – causes stress and is harmful to humans,” Evans says.[3]

Silence seems to have the opposite effect of the brain to noise. While noise may cause stress and tension silence releases tension in the brain and body. A study published in the journal Heart discovered that two minutes of silence can prove to be even more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music. They based these findings of changes they noticed in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.[4]

Silence replenishes our cognitive resources.

The effect that noise pollution can have on cognitive task performance has been extensively studied. It has been found that noise harms task performance at work and school. It can also be the cause of decreased motivation and an increase in error making.  The cognitive functions most strongly affected by noise are reading attention, memory and problem solving.

Studies have also concluded that children exposed to households or classrooms near airplane flight paths, railways or highways have lower reading scores and are slower in their development of cognitive and language skills.

But it is not all bad news. It is possible for the brain to restore its finite cognitive resources. According to the attention restoration theory when you are in an environment with lower levels of sensory input the brain can ‘recover’ some of its cognitive abilities. In silence the brain is able to let down its sensory guard and restore some of what has been ‘lost’ through excess noise.[5]

Summation

Traveling to Finland may just well be on your list of things to do. There you may find the silence you need to help your brain. Or, if Finland is a bit out of reach for now, you could simply take a quiet walk in a peaceful place in your neighborhood. This might prove to do you and your brain a world of good.

Featured photo credit: Angelina Litvin via unsplash.com

Reference

[1]^Nautil US: This Is Your Brain on Silence[2]^HuffPost: Why Silence Is So Good For Your Brain[3]^American Psychological Association: Silence Please[4]^Heart.: Cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and respiratory changes induced by different types of music in musicians and non‐musicians: the importance of silence[5]^Journal of Environmental Psychology: The Restorative Benefits of Nature: Toward an Integrative Framework

What Science Reveals About Gratitude’s Impact on the Brain

New research sheds light on the physiology of gratitude, bringing us closer to being able to understand and harness the health benefits of this powerful emotion.

Imagine you are on the run from a Nazi manhunt and are taken under the protection of a stranger. This stranger spends the winter providing you with food and shelter—even traveling to other towns to relay messages to your family members—yet has no hope or expectation of repayment from you. While your loved ones are systematically ensnared by the Nazi machine, this stranger keeps you alive and nourishes your faith in humanity, offering proof that in the midst of widespread horror, many individuals still act with unfettered compassion and dignity.

When you think about this stranger, what they risked, what you received—how would you feel?

You may feel a rush of positive emotion, joy from the relief of worrying about survival, and a sense of close connection to the stranger who has given you this gift. In concert, these feelings could be described as gratitude.

Does Gratitude Effect Our Brains?

Gratitude is celebrated throughout philosophy and religion; recent scientific studies suggest it carries significant benefits for our mental and physical health. But very little is known about what actually happens in our brain and body when we experience it.

Why does that matter? Because better understanding the physiology of gratitude can help pinpoint strategies for harnessing its health benefits and help people understand the importance of fostering this powerful emotion. The goal of my research has been to lay the groundwork for understanding what happens in the brain when we feel grateful—and a picture of the grateful brain is now starting to emerge.

Better understanding the physiology of gratitude can help pinpoint strategies for harnessing its health benefits

When I first embarked on the journey to study gratitude, I came across philosophical treatises and religious exhortations emphasizing the importance of gratitude, along with scientific studies suggesting that gratitude can improve your sleepenhance your romantic relationshipsprotect you from illnessmotivate you to exercise, and boost your happiness, among many other benefits.

At the time, however, very little was known about what happens in our brains and bodies when we experience gratitude, which made it difficult to understand how gratitude actually works. Since I’m a neuroscientist, I zeroed in on the neurobiology of gratitude with a more specific question in mind: Can our brain activity reveal anything about how gratitude achieves its significant benefits?

How Gratitude Strengthens the Mind-Body Connection

Given the clear relationship between mental and physical health, I thought that understanding what happens in the brain when we feel gratitude could tell us more about the mind-body connection—namely, how feeling positive emotion can improve bodily functions. I also thought these results could help scientists design programs aimed at generating gratitude by helping them zero in on the precise activities and experiences most essential to reaping gratitude’s benefits.

It must be said that actually capturing people in the moment of feeling gratitude poses some challenges. After all, some people may not feel gratitude when we expect them to, and others may even feel grateful in unexpected situations. I thought my best bet would be to try to induce gratitude through powerful stories of aid and sacrifice.

To achieve this, I turned to the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History, which houses the world’s largest repository of videotaped Holocaust survivor testimonies—many of which, perhaps surprisingly, are filled with breathtaking acts of selflessness and generosity. Along with a team of amazing undergraduates, I began by watching hundreds of hours of survivor testimony to find stories in which the survivor received help of some kind from another person.

We assembled a collection of these stories and transformed them into short scenarios that we shared with our participants. Each scenario was re-phrased into the second-person (e.g., “You are on a wintertime death march and a fellow prisoner gives you a warm coat”) and presented to our study’s participants. We asked them to imagine themselves in the scenario and feel, as much as possible, how they would feel if they were in the same situation. While participants reflected on these gifts, we measured their brain activity using modern brain imaging techniques (in the form of functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI).

The regions associated with gratitude are part of the neural networks that light up when we socialize and experience pleasure.

For each of these scenarios, we asked participants how much gratitude they felt, and we correlated this rating with their brain activity in that moment. While such an approach will not elicit exactly the same feelings as actually living through such situations, participants overwhelmingly reported strong feelings of gratitude, deep engagement in the task, and, perhaps even more importantly, an increased empathy for and understanding of the Holocaust as a result of participating in the study.

What’s more, our results revealed that when participants reported those grateful feelings, their brains showed activity in a set of regions located in the medial pre-frontal cortex, an area in the frontal lobes of the brain where the two hemispheres meet. This area of the brain is associated with understanding other people’s perspectives, empathy, and feelings of relief. This is also an area of the brain that is massively connected to the systems in the body and brain that regulate emotion and support the process of stress relief.

Three Ways Gratitude Benefits Our Minds

These data told us a reasonable story about gratitude:

  1. It can help relieve stress and pain. The regions associated with gratitude are part of the neural networks that light up when we socialize and experience pleasure. These regions are also heavily connected to the parts of the brain that control basic emotion regulation, such as heart rate and arousal levels, and are associated with stress relief and thus pain reduction. Feeling grateful and recognizing help from others creates a more relaxed body state and allows the subsequent benefits of lowered stress to wash over us. (We recently published a scientific paper elaborating on these ideas.)

  2. It can improve our health over time. They are also closely linked to the brain’s “mu opioid” networks, which are activated during close interpersonal touch and relief from pain—and may have evolved out of the need for grooming one another for parasites. In other words, our data suggest that because gratitude relies on the brain networks associated with social bonding and stress relief, this may explain in part how grateful feelings lead to health benefits over time.

  3. It can help those with depression. Perhaps even more encouraging, researcher Prathik Kini and colleagues at Indiana University performed a subsequent study examining how practicing gratitude can alter brain function in depressed individuals. They found evidence that gratitude may induce structural changes in the very same parts of the brain that we found active in our experiment. Such a result, in complement to our own, tells a story of how the mental practice of gratitude may even be able to change and re-wire the brain.

This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, one of Mindful’s partners. View the original article.