When was the last time you really experienced silence? Maybe you were on holiday in the mountains, or walking through a forest, and became still for a moment as you appreciated the peace and quiet of your surroundings. And let’s not forget the stunning silence of the first pandemic lockdown. The reduced road and air traffic noise brought a satisfying peace and quiet to our cities. In the past, the world was not always filled with the same noise intensity. For tens of thousands of years, our ancestors led relatively peaceful and quiet lives, often intimately connected with nature and the world around them. Outside the developed world, there are still many people who lead quiet and peaceful lives.
The fact is that many of us don’t feel comfortable with silence. Interestingly, silence is a sign of danger for many social animals, for instance, birds become silent before a big storm. Whether it’s because we unconsciously sense danger or something else, as modern humans we’ve grown used to noise and tend to fill up any silent gaps in our experience with distracting sounds. So, we turn on the radio, play music on our smartphones, or have the TV on in the background to distract ourselves from the silence.
So, what is silence and why is it important? On one level silence is simply the relative absence of noise. Apart from in an anechoic chamber, which is a room that has been specially designed to absorb sound, we never hear total silence. Our bodies have sounds of breath, heartbeat, and digestion. Even our ears emit faint sounds called otoacoustic emissions that are produced from the inner ear as part of the natural hearing process.