Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about noise and silence. Maybe it’s because I live in New York City, the vortex of volume. Especially in the summer, noise hammers at me from all sides. It’s like the world is a bell and I’m the clapper. By the end of the day, I feel quite jangled. My guess is that you sometimes do too, whether you live in a city or not.
One reason we feel jangled is high-intensity physical noise. There’s a lot of it around, and the cacophony continues to increase. In the city, sirens scream and subways screech; horns honk in front of us and helicopters hover over us.
But another kind of noise is more pervasive and insidious: the lower-intensity sounds of phones ringing, email arriving, songs playing, and televisions blaring. It’s a continual assault on not only our eardrums, but on our souls as well. Too much noise may deafen you, but it can also demoralize you.
Maybe we should unplug. Some time ago in the technology section of The New York Times, Matt Richtel wrote about several neuroscientists who spent a week on a camping trip in remote southern Utah. The trip was an effort to understand how heavy use of technology and digital devices changes how we think and behave—and how a retreat into nature might reverse the effects. With cell phones silent, email inaccessible, and laptops left behind, it was a week-long journey into the heart of silence.
As background, the article mentions a seminal study at the University of Michigan, which showed that people don’t learn as well after walking down a busy street as they do after a walk in the woods. The neuroscientists on the trip theorized that the difference has to do with the central role that attention plays in memory and learning. If you have several things in your environment that demand your attention, you can’t fully focus on any one of them. And the process of switching from one to the other takes time, further reducing the attention you have available.
And there’s one more factor that is especially relevant to heavy users of technology. If you are in a situation where you could potentially be interrupted by an email, or a text, or a phone call, or a knock at the door, a small but significant portion of your attention will be focused on anticipating what might happen, even if it never does. The upshot is that your attention, already divided among multiple tasks, is further abridged by the costs of switching and anticipating additional switches. In the end, you’re not really paying attention at all. But you are completely exhausted by the experience.
What’s the solution to this state of jangle? In his book In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, George Prochnik says that we shouldn’t think of the noise surrounding us as only a pollution issue. Rather, he says, we should think of it also as a dietary issue: “Our aural diet is miserable. It’s full of over-rich, non-nutritious sounds served in inflated portions—and we don’t consume nearly enough silence. A poor diet kills; but it kills as much because of what it does not contain as from what it includes.”
Truth be told, we’re not likely to stop using our smart phones and headphones. Instead, our goal should be to consume more silence. It will help keep the noise from deafening us. And it will certainly help keep it from demoralizing us. Besides, silence is what makes sound meaningful in the first place.
The composer Claude Debussy once remarked that music is the stuff between the notes. He seemed to be saying that almost anyone can eventually get the notes right, more or less. The notes only become music, however, when you also get the silences on either side of them right. The margins around the notes matter: the silence is what gives meaning to everything else.
Neuroscientists at Stanford recently corroborated Debussy’s assertion. They have shown that when we listen to music, it’s the silent intervals that trigger the most intense, positive brain activity. As George Prochnik reports, “The peak of positive brain activity actually occurs in the silent pauses between sounds, when the brain is striving to anticipate what the next note will be. The burst of neural firing that takes place in the absence of sound enables the mind to perform some of its most vital work of maintaining attention and encoding memories.”
In other words, in order for the sounds of life to have meaning, we need to consume our minimum daily requirement of silence.