'Speech fasting': why are periods of silence good for us?

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Moments of calm silence are said to help lower blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormone levels.

Moments of calm silence are said to help lower blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormone levels.

The proverb says: “Speech is silver, but silence is golden.” However in our modern society, speech has become a dominant and prioritized quality. It’s so prevalent that some people are trying out “speech fasting,” in order to reconnect with silence and its benefits.

Scottish singer Lulu is a proponent of “speech fasting”. She has made a habit of not uttering a single sound in the hours leading up to one of her live performances. “[It helps me] take care of my vocal instrument. It allows me to sing,” she told The Guardian.

The idea of remaining totally silent, even for a few hours, may seem surprising. Silence has become a rare commodity. We live in an increasingly noisy world, without necessarily realizing it.

The periods of lockdown implemented to slow the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic made city dwellers aware of the noise pollution to which they are exposed in their daily lives. But many of us aren’t particularly concerned about its potentially damaging effects.

We should be more attentive to the risk. Long-term exposure to noise at high levels can be harmful to both physical and mental health. In addition to hearing loss, noise pollution can contribute to cardiovascular disease (hypertension and myocardial infarction) and sleep disorders. Noise also triggers the secretion of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which disrupt the body.

Silence is good for us.

Conversely, neuroscientists have discovered that there are numerous benefits to silence. Moments of calm silence are said to help lower blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormone levels. One study, published in 2013 in the journal Brain Structure and Function, showed that adult mice exposed to two hours of silence a day developed new cells in the hippocampus, the brain region involved in memorization. The researchers did not see development of such neurons in the rodents exposed to noise.

So if silence brings so many benefits, why aren’t we all embracing it? Why do some people even try to avoid silent periods? One reason is that the absence of noise can be disturbing to those used to it, particularly for anxious individuals who may need some sort of stimulation to calm their fears.

Noise keeps us in an alert state, unlike true silence, which allows our brain and body to regenerate. But this regeneration process also implies a certain kind of stasis, which can be a challenge for some people to integrate into their outlook.

American psychology professor Timothy Wilson and his colleagues at the University of Virginia observed this phenomenon back in 2014, when they asked volunteers to sit idly for 10 minutes in a completely empty room. The researchers provided them with small devices that enabled them to self-inflict relatively painless electrical microstimulations.

It turned out that a large number of participants gave themselves at least one electric shock to pass the time and do something so that they could avoid being ‘alone’ with their own thoughts.

We need to work on coming to terms with our inner voice so that moments of silence are no longer experienced as boring, but as a luxury that we treat ourselves to. “Speech fasting” can help, as can mindfulness meditation, silent walking or visits to ‘quiet parks.’ Whichever method you choose, embracing periods of silence can be good for you.

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