Is noise bad for us? The authors of "Golden" on why silence is good for your brain

On the unique power of quiet, and why silence shouldn't be a luxury

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 29, 2022 7:30PM (EDT)

Rear view of woman with yellow jacket gazing at mountains and northern branch of Lake Como at dawn. Peglio, Como province, Lombardy region, Italy. (Getty/Francesco Vaninetti Photo)
Rear view of woman with yellow jacket gazing at mountains and northern branch of Lake Como at dawn. Peglio, Como province, Lombardy region, Italy. (Getty/Francesco Vaninetti Photo)

I used to think that silence was something I could escape to. I used to think it existed somewhere else. I was looking in all the wrong places. It turns out, it's closer than I ever imagined.

While Justin Talbot Zorn and Leigh Marz's fascinating new book "Golden: The Power of Silence In a World of Noise" does explore the physical and emotional toll of living in our noisy modern world, it understands that moving to a nice, quiet cave is not really an option for most of us. Instead, they explore the value of learning first to turn down the volume inside our own heads.

Salon talked to the authors recently via Zoom about what we get wrong about silence, why it's neither passive nor boring, and what happens when we discover even a few quiet moments in our loud, busy days. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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True silence is elusive for most of us. We live in noisy cities, we're getting notifications on our phones all day. This book is not about getting away from those realities.

Leigh Marz: It was very much a journey. We had this intuition that there was something about silence to discover. At different times we would grapple with the fact that we were not living this pristine, silent life at all. For example, we had the blessing of Justin becoming the father of twins, as well as being a father of a five-year-old now. There were times where I know Justin was thinking, "What? How could I be writing and thinking about silence?" That was such a blessing on so many levels, but it really kept us true to this message, which is really, "How do we stay engaged in this life?"

How do we stay in our full lives and find the silence from there in the micro-moments, to emphasize the quality of that silence rather than the quantity, perhaps more accessible to us in this life phase that we are in? What are we going to tap into and do, whereas we might used to have gone off to big nature resorts or meditation retreats? That's just not the reality right now. So what is possible from here?

"The noise of the world isn't going away at any level. That's okay."

Justin Zorn: I love that emphasis on what is possible. It's such an important question. For us, the focus on the internal silence felt born of necessity, given the fact that the noise of the world isn't going away at any level. That's okay. We're not looking for a world of total pristine silence everywhere. We just wanted to explore how within this reality that we inhabit right now, is it possible to make more room for silence and maybe build more appreciation for the silence that's always available?

You talk in the book about the concepts of silence and noise as issues also of social justice.

Zorn: We start looking at the cultural assumption that silence is complacency. Sometimes in the face of injustice, silence is violence. We honor that and respect that and we feel that apathy can be one of the greatest evils in the world. But when we look at the challenges of apathy in the world today, most of it is a result of noise of social media, of constant distractedness. If we can find the space in ourselves, in our lives, to be able to really pay attention deeply, then we find more engagement.

RELATED: Even "low-level" noise is unhealthy: A neuroscientist explains how sound and health are connected

With neighborhood levels of noise and those disparities, that's part of it as well, because people who have fewer material resources are often engaged in the most noise of all the world. That can be most disorienting, and silence has become something of a luxury good. You see luxury electric cars being sold for their silence, places to live that are removed from the noise of the world, and spas that advertise on the basis of unplugging from your phone and from the noise of the world.

At one level, the work of justice requires that we turn down the noise and the work of building a just society requires that we're able to democratize silence a little bit more, to all turn down the noise.

Marz: This was another one of those surprise discoveries we thought we might just be able to say in maybe a paragraph or two — "This is the type of silence we are talking about and this is the type of silence we're not talking about." In domestic violence, we talk about that the tagline "breaking the silence" all the time, the silence that reinforces that dynamic from those around, whoever is in that violent situation.

We ended up diving deep into this real issue and speaking with amazing thinkers about this, Sheena Malhotra and other professors who've been thinking about how important it is to not get into this dichotomous thinking about "silence bad, making noise good." It's valued in different cultures differently, it's not always about being loud.

In this process found that Gandhi, a great lifetime steward of justice, kept every Monday in silence. This was astonishing to us to think about. With the amount he had on his plate, every Monday he would take meetings and attend conferences, but not speak a word to allow for him, as he put it, to take a step back and discern, what is true here? What is the true signal? What needs my attention versus what is distraction and noise? We think we can of course learn from that. We're not expecting each of us to be Gandhi or hold up to that standard, but it demonstrated a lot to us.

You used a phrase in the book about the difference between the silence of the mouth and the silence of the mind. We live in such a reactive culture. Talk to me about what it means for silence to be an active thing in our lives and how we can cultivate it. It's about understanding those little moments of pause that we may be able to find.

Zorn: I love how you talk about this, about the silence as something active in our lives. One of the core ideas of this book is that silence itself really is an active force of healing and clarity. We talk about the research from Duke Medical School. The act of listening to silence more than other auditory stimulus, there's evidence that it regenerates neurons in the brain. It really comes down to seeing this as an active force of renewal, rather than just something passive, like passing the time.

"Quiet is what one experiences as quieting."

Marz: We met up with Dr. Joshua Smyth at Penn State University, who has done many of these large scale stress and mindfulness studies. We asked him about that internal silence as we honed in on what's happening in our internal landscapes. He said quiet is what one experiences as quieting. This was a big moment for us because we realized, okay, yes to meditation, if that's your thing. But if it's not that, what matters is what is bringing us quiet. Maybe we feel that in our bodies, we feel a sense of that calm. We feel it in our emotional state. We notice our relationships are going a little better, that we're getting through our day with more ease.

What might bring us quiet might be something very small in a day, like taking just a moment to step outside in the rays of the sun, hearing birdsong, listening to the breeze, just walking to get a glass of water with a little bit more frequency or even paying attention to the in and out breath and the little moment of quiet between the two. It could be very small. They can be shared, or they could be alone. They could be out outrageously loud on the outside, like dancing, but so quiet inside. We like the idea of this democratizing silence, but also democratizing the idea of what brings you quiet is valuable stuff. And maybe we need to even prioritize it more in our lives.

The idea of being alone with our thoughts can seem so boring. We think that silence is boring because we are accustomed to never having an un-entertained moment.

Zorn: We share a part of a poem in the book from Kabir, where he says, "Be silent in your mind, silent in your senses and also silent in your body. Then when all these are silent, don't do anything. In that state truth will reveal itself to you. It will appear in front of you and ask, what do you want?" We love this ancient poem that is basically saying, if you want to really figure out what it is that you want, it's important to spend some time in that place of not being entertained, not having the music on when you're folding the laundry. Maybe you can when you folding the laundry, that's fine.

But maybe not always. Not having that just as the default. You're not talking about retreat. You're talking about, just let it sit for a moment, whatever happens. But I'm an extrovert. The thought of there not being patter is a primal terror for me. When you lean into that terror, that's where discovery happens.

Zorn: I love how you described that as a terror. That was one of the psychological questions and even spiritual questions we sought to answer. Why is that a terror? What is it for you?

For me, it's my sense that I need to entertain. I need to provide. The optimists and the extroverts of the world don't want to make anybody else uncomfortable. I think a lot of us want to rush in to rescue someone in their silence because the thought that someone could be comfortable in their silence is almost untenable.

Zorn: One line we had in that original Harvard Business Review article that we wrote that really seemed to resonate with people was about the idea of taking a break from one of life's most pervasive responsibilities, which is having to think of what to say. One of the things we explored is the cognitive and emotional burden of what you're talking about. It's also having to sound smart, having to sound optimistic, having to perform.

There is a toll that noise does take on us. You talk about the effect it has on our heart and on our brain and on our body and why, even a few moments in your day that are quiet and restful can really do a lot of repair.

Talk to me about what the assault on our senses can do, which is why it's important that we find those little pockets of quiet when we can.

Marz: It's quite astonishing how we bombard ourselves with the auditory noise, to cardiovascular health and diabetes and depression. And then loss of sleep, which is tragic. We're really understanding more about how that is and what a great disparity that is. Black That is a big problem, and all that downstream impact occurs.

In terms of informational noise and the impact of having our attention yanked from thing to thing, to thing to thing, there's that that feeling the sense of stress and anxiety and that spills over into this internal chatter and worrying and ruminating. Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan estimates that we have something like 320 State of Union addresses going through our minds every day. Most of it is kind of gnarly. We're being harangued and nagged and all these things.

Then there's just how we spend our days, how we spend our precious life on this planet. You can see that's getting in the way of our health and our wellness and our connection to self and our connection to others, even our connection to this planet and what we're doing to it. We were really deeply concerned with the toll of noise. We're not really paying attention to what that cost is to our lives.

Zorn: The story of Florence Nightingale really brings it into stark relief, how serious this is. Though her experience in the hospital and the Crimean War and Istanbul, she emphasized noise as this cruel absence of care, this cruelest absence of care. She really created her own kind of taxonomy of kinds of noise and the challenges because she pointed to the most stress coming with the kind of noise that creates expectations in the mind. She could identify that it's not just the jackhammer per se, but it's when someone is whispering something just outside a range of intelligibility.

Let me ask you about fighting noise with noise, which certainly those of us who live in urban environments do a lot. If I put in noise-canceling headphones, or I turn on a white noise machine at night, am I just creating a more tolerable noise?

Zorn: It goes back to the nature of this world and how we're not going to live in a world of pristine silence. That's okay. We honor that. Would it be better perhaps for the nervous system to be sitting in a serene lake by a forest? Yes, I think the answer is, according to the neuroscience and according to the physicians we've spoken with. That is a place where there's going to be likely the least stress and to what we were talking about before, the most opportunity to know yourself and to know the people around you.

That said, we explore these ideas of finding silence within through what's variously called entrainment or sensory harmony, where you can get into a place where you are focused enough on the story that's being told in that podcast. Or you're focused enough on the beat and the music you're listening to, or you're in a place of sensory harmony in your breath in your body and that white noise is playing. There's still a kind of silence that you can access within those relative conditions. The core message that we're wanting to get across here is to be noticing the noise where it arises, the disruptions to that harmony within yourself, the stress that's arising.

More on finding peace in a noisy world: 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Brain Science Golden Interview Justin Zorn Leigh Marz Neurology Silence