The Science Of Silence, And Why It's Essential For True Mindfulness

Originally written for Zansors in connection with their respiration rate monitor Respa.

man meditating with view of city before him

Silence has become a rare commodity in our daily lives. From the moment we wake up, to the moment we fall asleep, there are countless distractions looking to take up a fraction of our attention. It’s little wonder that a counter-movement has emerged from the cacophony. Mindfulness, the act of tuning into ourselves, is the simple antidote for our overstimulated brains.

While grabbing for our phones may feel like second nature, humans have been living in a distracted culture for a relatively short period of time. In the remote Himalayan mountains, Buddhist monks live the highest example of mindfulness. By practicing silent meditation, these monks remove the psychological barriers between themselves and the outside world, achieving a state of “oneness.”

So, how can we experience some of these benefits at home? The good news is that you don’t need to devote your life to spiritual practice to reap the powerful benefits of mindfulness. Mental health and meditation experts recommend performing a mental “cleanse” periodically to calm racing thoughts and to improve focus-related task performance. Even ten minutes per day of silent meditation can bring marked improvement to your mental and physical wellness.

Why is silent meditation so important? Scientists have been surprised to find that silence is a key factor in creating a healing environment for your brain. Here are some of the ways that silence boosts your brain’s superpowers:

  • Give your brain a break - Most of the brain’s energy is put towards automatic functions, such as maintaining awareness of our surroundings and developing cognitive associations. Comparatively little brain energy is put towards complex tasks, such as advanced arithmetic. Much like the way our body metabolizes calories, most energy is burned through our body’s natural functions, not by working out hard at the gym. Meditating in a still, silent place allows the brain to optimally conserve its energy. In this period of mental relaxation, the brain can allocate energy towards “house cleaning activities,” which are essential for the preservation of existing neurons.
  • Tap into your brain’s default mode - Scientific studies have revealed distinct modes of the brain: the Default Mode Network and the Task-Positive Network (other brain networks have also been observed, such as the Resting State Network). The default mode is activated when we are at silent rest, ideally with eyes closed. During this state, the body supplies more blood to the frontal lobes, which is generally interpreted as increased brain activity in that region. The default mode is also associated with increased introspection, a notable benefit in the practice of mindfulness. In this mode, the brain does the work of amalgamating the conscious and subconscious minds, helping us set new skills into muscle memory, digest new academic concepts, or absorb therapeutic work.
  • Support neuroplasticity - Neuroplasticity is newly making its way into popular jargon. There have been stunning case studies in which patients who experience chronic neural pain or degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, tap into the power of their own neural networks to develop compensatory mechanisms to relieve their symptoms. Research shows that mindfulness facilitates the brain’s reorganization, giving it space to effectively heal itself (Doidge, 142). Studies involving mice have shown that silence, rather than music or white noise, promoted new cell development in the hippocampus. This area of the brain is associated with memory formation and sensory perception.
  • Truly self-reflect - Being silent with ourselves gives way to noticing subtle signs within our bodies: breathing patterns, digestive noises, and any musculoskeletal imbalances. Silent meditation is a valuable time to take internal inventory. In the practice of mindfulness, greater self-insight can be found by embracing silence and simplicity.
  • Process suppressed thoughts and emotions - One of the intimidating factors of silence is it takes away coping mechanisms for suppressing painful thoughts and emotions. By filling our lives with distractions, we’re able to evade processing deep trauma. Suppressing thoughts and emotions long-term keeps the brain in an elevated level of stress and prevents its systems from working properly. When we don’t consciously process trauma or negative thoughts, they tend to emerge in self-destructive habits. Doing the hard work of sitting in silence and allowing latent thoughts and emotions to come to the surface is temporary pain in service of long-term wellness.
  • Boost creativity - The brain in a silent environment can be likened to a blank slate. In a distraction-free space we are able to notice every idea that appears in our mind’s eye. Silence, even boredom, puts us into a seeking state, forcing us to choose what is most fulfilling for us to work on. Instead of being burdened by unproductive distractions, silent meditation peels back non-necessities. The phenomenon of writer's block is most aggravating when the writer wracks their brain for a shred of creativity. The medicine is to simply stop trying; let your brain subconsciously do its work, and it will gift you an idea in due time.

The power of silent meditation is truly compelling. Its effects on mental wellness and competitive performance have caught the attention of elite sports teams and major corporations. A simple practice, requiring nothing but time and space, can bring about measurable benefits for already high-performing individuals. Instead of a jumbo coffee in the afternoon, a short meditation break is all that’s required to reboot your innate capabilities.

So, embrace a bit of silence in your day. You’ll be reinvigorating your brain, protecting against degenerative diseases, and taking another step closer to monk-like oneness. A bit of silence is a much-needed salve for the stressed, distracted brain.