A leaf hanging from a fine thread of spider silk.
The smell of freshly cut grass.
The tickle of the breeze ruffling her hair.
from A Quiet Girl
written and illustrated by Peter Carnavas
Pajama Press, 2020
Not long ago, the electricity went out at my house. It’s not a usual occurrence around here and it didn’t last very long, but I became acutely aware of the silence. The refrigerator stopped humming. The clock I hardly noticed anymore stopped its low buzz. The radio quit, too.
I like quiet. So does my husband. We can drive for hours on a car trip and hardly speak a word. The world skims past. Sometimes waves splash under a long bridge. A great blue heron, rhythmically beats its wings, trying to keep up. Wind ruffles treetops in the elusive distance. All in silence.
A quiet walk in the park always lifts my spirits, even when I fight the idea of exercising in the first place. Especially then. Time alone on the back porch gets me to the same frame of mind (but without the advantage of calorie burn). I listen to robins and cardinals. I hear traffic and lawnmowers. My neighbor's dog barks.
Like light, sound travels in waves. When sound waves enter our ears, the bones of our middle ear begin to vibrate. The vibrations create ripples and waves in the fluid of our cochlea in our inner ear. Tiny hair-like structures convert the movements into electrical signals. The auditory nerve sends the electrical signals to our brains. Our brains interpret those signals and we identify a sound and all its nuances.
Like the olfactory bulb I wrote about in “Making Sense of Scents,” (March 14, 2023) connects to our emotional lives when we smell something familiar, sound waves travel to the amygdalae, two almond-shaped clusters of neurons that also trigger an emotional response. It’s part of the equation that transforms an old song into a vivid memory of a meaningful event or person.
The amygdalae in turn begin the process of hormone secretion, specifically cortisol, the stress hormone and adrenaline, to aid our fight or flight response. In short, too much sound (noise?) results in an overabundance of cortisol and adrenaline circulating in our blood system.
As early as 1859, Florence Nightingale wrote that: “Unnecessary noise, then, is the most cruel absence of care which can be inflicted either on sick or well.” (Notes on Nursing: What It Is, and What It Is Not)
Now, science is showing us just how disruptive noise really is. An article in Time Magazine, reports on Arline Bronzaft’s work in the 1970s. She found that “reading test scores of Manhattan middle schoolers whose classrooms faced a high-decibel elevated subway track lagged up to a year behind those of students in quieter classrooms on the opposite side of the building.”
Besides elevating stress hormones, noise can interrupt our ability to concentrate as Ms. Bronzaft showed. Even music, when it’s consistently loud and prolonged like some rock concerts and construction sites,, can affect the quality of our everyday hearing, even leading to hearing loss which in turn can also lead to social isolation, loneliness, and depression. Newer studies also show increased risks of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
In 2013, Imke Kirste and her team published a paper through the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. They put mice in a soundproof chamber and introduced them to several different environments, one at a time: white noise, pup calls, and silence. After 24 hours, the mice that were exposed to pup calls and silence were found to have grown new brain cells. “But after 7 days, only silence remained associated with increased numbers of … cells.”
Of course, the next question is why? What is it about silence that promotes neural plasticity, our brain’s ability to grow new cells? Kirste discovered through functional imaging, that the mice who were enveloped in silence were “trying to hear.” When we listen to quiet, our ability to think is heightened. We become better at being able to distinguish, judge, and contemplate. And remember.
Thousands of years ago Pythagoras (c.570 BCE - c.490 BCE) advised his students to learn to be silent. He told his brightest students, “Let your quiet mind listen and absorb the silence.”
In the millennia-old tradition of Nada Yoga, students practice focusing on the sounds in their immediate environment, "even the ringing in their own ears."
We learn from Imke that the work we do in silence produces a type of positive stress called eustress, the opposite of distress. By challenging ourselves to bring our surroundings into sharp focus, we also sharpen our ability to rise to that challenge. The success we feel increases positive feelings: contentment, inspiration, and motivation. Eustress.
By taking some time to listen to the sounds of silence, we can discover for ourselves what a beautiful world we’re part of.
This week I’m reading Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate (Ballantine Books/Random House Publishing Group, 2017). Rill Foss is only 12 years old in 1939, when she and her four younger siblings were kidnapped and sent to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage. Based on a true story, Rill is physically abused by the people in charge and emotionally distraught because her father put her in charge of watching the little ones while he took their mother on an emergency run to the hospital. It’s also the modern-day story of Avery Stafford who has been groomed for an elected position in state government.
The intersection of Rill’s story with Avery’s is compelling, heart wrenching, and inevitable. Highly recommended.
be curious! (and enjoy a little quiet time)