True Silence Creates New Brain Cells, Improves Memory
Silence, blessed silence, may be a neurological blessing to your mind. Prolonged silence has been shown to spur new cell development in the brain (among mice), while shorter periods of noiselessness between sounds have put people into more relaxed states.
These findings and others are reported by David Gross in a Nautilus roundup of scientific research on the benefits of silence. It also notes that silence can be considered a rare commodity in our media-saturated world. There are fewer and fewer places were true silence reigns, and it's the very rarity of the experience that may be responsible for the neurological effects found by researchers.
The most intriguing study was one that focused on mice, not humans. But it should not be completely discounted because of that, and its results are fairly impressive. Imke Kirste, a biologist at Duke University, was interested in triggering regenerative effects on brain cells using auditory stimuli.
For her study, Kirste subjected three groups of adult mice to three types of sound: music, white noise and infant mouse calls. Meanwhile, a fourth group meant to serve as a control listened to two hours of silence per day. The first three groups experienced some positive effects, but nothing long-lasting.
Unexpectedly, it was the "control group" that produced the effect Kirste was looking for - the development of new brain cells in the hippocampus, a brain region involved in the encoding of new memories. (People who have experienced severe damage to the hippocampi can have trouble forming new memories and may even lose earlier memories.) Kirste hypothesizes that the unusual experience of a silent environment prompted the mouse brains to increase in activity, as a response to a strange new situation.
In another study on the effects of sound, Luciano Bernardi investigated the efficacy of music in modulating stress in people. A medical researcher at the University of Pavia in Italy, Bernardi and his colleagues C. Porta and P. Sleight played short tracks of music in six different styles to human subjects and observed their physiological reactions.
A two minute pause was inserted into all of the musical sequences used in the study. The researchers had not planned to investigate the effects of the pause, and yet this short two-minute silence produced a deeper state of relaxation in the participants than any kind of music.
Silence - particularly periods of silence contrasted against other sounds - may be just what the doctor ordered for people who are dealing with stress. More than that, prolonged silence may help you improve your brain functions and memory - even if you're not a mouse.