Asking scientists about silence is sort of like asking writers about the spaces between words. Most of us pay close attention to our language, not its absence. Even so, for my 2014 Nautilus story, “This Is Your Brain on Silence,” a dozen researchers in fields like neuroscience and biology listened patiently while I asked them an odd question. Do you like silence? Why?
After dissecting the gory details of a scientific study, or discussing the progression of vibrations through the ear bones, this question always seemed a little out of place. Scientists spend most of their time cupping their ears to the door of natural phenomena, listening to the brain or body or physical world. I was asking them to listen to themselves. This made my question personal rather than scientific—and it made the answers intimate rather than factual.
“I need a quiet moment now and then, to just parse through the thoughts that are racing through my head,” said Dave Kraemer, who studies human auditory processing at Dartmouth. “Sometimes I’m feeling emotions that I don’t realize, until I am away from a situation.” Silence helped Kramer recognize them, the way a white sheet of paper helps black ink stand out.
The neuroscientist Marcus Raichle told me that his best thinking happens in quiet places. He likes to stare out the window of airplanes and watch bright clouds pass by. “It’s kind of peaceful to get on a plane, and stare out at the clouds and just think,” he said. When he received my phone call, he was sitting at his lakeside house in Washington state. “I can look out at the water and look out at the eastern face of the Olympic Mountains, and stare out into space and just kind of think about things. And I rather enjoy that.” For Raichle, silence was shorthand for thoughtful solitude. Quiet is almost always experienced alone, and that’s why my question was so personal: I was asking scientists how they spend time by themselves.
After one scientist studied the effects of music, sounds, and silence on the brains of lab mice, she started to wonder if her own life was too loud.
Yet the personal experience of solitude can shape scientific research. Personal experience feeds scientific intuition. Zoran Josipovic, a soft-spoken New York University neuroscientist, has scanned the brains of Buddhist monks during meditation—partly because he meditates himself and wants to know how it works. During his commute to work, he hears jackhammers, car horns, and rattling subway trains. He found it difficult to express precisely why silence is golden, but he knew a satisfying silence when he heard one. “New York City is jarring when it comes to auditory stimulation,” Josipovic told me by Skype.
Josipovic and I were speaking in the early evening, which meant he’d left the city for his secluded home in upstate New York. “At night, there’s no light and there’s no sound. It’s completely quiet.” Then he turned his webcam around so it faced the window. An expanse of trees, green fields, and distant hills—the view from his house—filled my screen. In a place like that, he said, “your whole sensory system starts to relax, and open up.”
As a journalist, these are exactly the kinds of glimpses I hope to find. You can learn in a book what happens at the lab bench, but there’s only one person who can tell you what happens in quiet moments of thought. Josipovic’s subjective sensations of relaxation directly inform his scientific studies of the brain.
All these impressions offered partial answers to the question: Why is silence golden? But they also reminded me that scientists enjoy silence like the rest of us, and can be just as curious why that’s the case. After Imke Kirste studied the effects of music, sounds, and silence on the brains of lab mice, she started to wonder if her own life was too loud. “When I go somewhere in my car, I often don’t even put the radio on anymore,” she said. She grew conscious of background noise and auditory distractions. “If I choose to expose myself to music, it’s a voluntary action.”
When you study silence, you learn to listen differently. The neuroscientist Mike Wehr cited a public radio interview with Tom Petty that he’d heard. Petty had remarked that as a young musician, he’d tried to pack as much sound as possible into every song. Only later in his career did he learn that longer silences build contrasts and vary the texture of music. “Where you have a lot of silence,” Wehr said, “the individual elements can actually stand out.”
Society, Tom Petty notwithstanding, has grown louder in our age of airplanes, factories, bulldozers, and automobiles. The Italian heart researcher Luciano Bernardi reflected that a few centuries ago, society “was a lot of silence with just a few noises.” But these days, “it’s just the opposite. Silence is a very privileged situation.” We go looking for quiet places—in mountain cabins, meditation retreats, stereo headphones. Maybe this is the best evidence that silence is golden. Whether we’re scientists, readers, or writers, we seek it out.
The answer to that question I kept asking—Do you like silence? Why?— didn’t always tell me about the science of silence. But it did tell me a lot about the scientists themselves. Scientists listen for a living, to the signs and signals they discover in natural phenomena. Science journalists—when we’re lucky—get to hear them think aloud.
Daniel A. Gross is a freelance journalist and public radio producer who writes about history and science.