Photo credit: Dương Nhân

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I used to like listening to the Simon and Garfunkel song The Sound of Silence, and that’s a good title for this blog post about a study in the well-regarded scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. I skimmed the report after reading an article about it in Scientific American. Researchers in the psychology and philosophy departments at Johns Hopkins University tried to answer a question relevant to both disciplines: Do we only hear sounds or can we also hear silence? They found that silences can “substitute” for sounds in event-based auditory illusions. The authors state that “seven experiments introduce three ‘science illusions,’ adapted from perceptual illusions previously thought to arise only with sounds. In all cases, silences elicited temporal distortions perfectly analogous to their sound-based counterparts, suggesting that auditory processing treats moments of silence the way it treats sounds.”

I had never thought of these things before, but in the Scientific American article author Shayla Love discusses the fact that silence must be bracketed by sounds before and after, the same way there can be no donut hole without a donut. Who knew?

I’m not sure how important this study is for those of us concerned about noise, though. People don’t want tomb-like silence. That can be uncomfortable or even disturbing. Most people can’t tolerate more than a few to several minutes in the total silence of an anechoic room.

People instead want quiet, a world quiet enough to hear the wind in the leaves, the birds in the trees, our children in the park and our dining companions in a restaurant — without the unnecessary sounds of low-flying, nonessential tourist helicopters, illegally-modified vehicle exhaust pipes or background music turned up to rock concert levels.

A quieter world will be a better and healthier world for all.

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