Silence, please – why quiet is vital for the brain

For many, silence is hearsay – with all the input constantly bombarding our senses, true silence is rare. This article looks at why silence is good medicine for headaches and migraine attacks.

Be quiet – it’s the law

Section 117 (1) of the German Administrative Offenses Act says: 'Whoever, without a justified reason, or to an inadmissible extent, or to an extent avoidable under the circumstances, produces noise likely to cause substantial nuisance to the general public or local community, or injure the health of another person, shall be deemed to have committed an offense.' The law makes explicit reference to the fact that noise can harm your health. Noise-related damage to hearing might be your first thought, but research shows that constant exposure to noise has far-reaching consequences. The health impacts of noise are not limited to permanent damage to your hearing.

Federal and state noise control laws specify quiet hours to protect us from noise. Noise you make at night and on Sundays and public holidays must not exceed room volume. But noise is not only a problem when it is loud enough to damage our hearing. There is plenty of scientific evidence that prolonged exposure to noise can make us sick in multiple ways. That's why a break from everyday noise is essential for our well-being. How come?

Noise is a serious health problem

The World Health Organization (WHO) calls noise pollution a "modern plague". There is overwhelming evidence that environmental noise has adverse effects on public health. Noise is actually a form of airborne pollution in many places.

We are exposed to various forms of unwanted sound in many areas of life. Silent places have been quietly disappearing since the beginning of industrialization. Count the number of times you’ve experienced absolute silence in the last week. It’s probably not that many.

Noise interferes directly with sleep, concentration, communication, and recreation. The noise we cannot escape, often combined with other harmful environmental agents, is particularly serious in terms of its impact on migraine and headache events. Science has demonstrated clear links between noise and the frequency and severity of attacks of migraine and tension-type headache.

Our amazing brain, again: instant risk assessment based on sensory input

Our bodies are hard-wired to screen sensory input for possible risks. Every single thing our senses perceive is checked for potential hazards. Every sudden noise we hear may indicate a threat to our lives. Imagine living in the Stone Age. Any sudden noise might be a predator out to kill you. Nowadays, it could be a speeding car. The same applies to other sudden sensory impressions. Our brain needs to establish in a flash whether the signals coming in could be danger signs. If so, we would need to respond immediately (flight, fight, shelter).

This is a truly amazing feat of brainpower. Just think of all the input our senses receive in the course of a day. Depending on your lifestyle and where you live, an ordinary day can mean non-stop exposure to noise, rapid visual stimuli and powerful smells. Our brain is working full blast the whole time without us noticing.

Non-stop noise: more than a nuisance

Constantly classifying and responding to sensory stimuli can get to be too much. Our brains are not built to process sensory information flooding in from multiple sources. We are drowning in stimuli from street noise, ringing phones, flickering lights, new music in every store, social media chatter and so much more. Our bodies enter a state of emergency preparedness, ready at any time to take flight or respond to a threat. If this state persists or becomes the norm, it leads to increased headache events – both tension-type headache and migraine. In this constant state of high alert, our body releases large amounts of cortisol, the natural stress hormone. This can adversely affect many other bodily functions and cause organ damage.

Quietly preventing headaches

As our surroundings – and our inner selves – become more agitated, noisy and restless, many people feel the need to seek silence and quiet places. Just ten minutes of absolute silence can help restore our agitated brain to normal.

Some people take extended time away from it all. Periods of silence are some of the best ways to prevent headache and migraine attacks. A research study showed that just two minutes of silence is good for mind and body. Blood pressure drops, breathing returns to normal, and blood flow to the brain improves. Some people in this study responded better to absolute silence than to relaxing music.

Use the full range of preventive care options

Studies like this one show that incorporating moments of silence into your life makes a real difference. Longer periods of silence from time to time can be beneficial too. You might not manage it every day, but you an make the best use of your opportunities to find a quiet space and seek out silence. How does a weekend walk in the woods sound to you? Outdoor spaces are not completely silent, of course, but plenty of studies show that nature’s soundscape relaxes us more than the sounds of civilization. Being aware of the benefits of silence is the first step to taking advantage of them. Your body will thank you, and you may notice the preventive effect on headache and migraine attacks sooner than you think.

  • References
    • Bernardi, L., Porta, C., & Sleight, P. (2006). Cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and respiratory changes induced by different types of music in musicians and non-musicians: the importance of silence. Heart (British Cardiac Society), 92(4), 445–452.
    • Goines L, Hagler L. Noise pollution: a modern plague. South Med J. 2007 Mar;100(3):287-94. doi: 10.1097/smj.0b013e3180318be5.
    • Kirste I, Nicola Z, Kronenberg G, Walker TL, Liu RC, Kempermann G. Is silence golden? Effects of auditory stimuli and their absence on adult hippocampal neurogenesis. Brain Struct Funct. 2015 Mar;220(2):1221-8. doi: 10.1007/s00429-013-0679-3. Epub 2013 Dec 1.