The Sound of Silence: How the Absence of Noise Affects Your Decisions

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Apr 03, 2024

Have you ever found yourself turning down the car radio while looking for a parking spot? Or stepping outside of a noisy room just so you could think? These almost instinctual habits reveal something fundamental about our relationship with noise—especially when it comes to making decisions. 

Silence can be uncomfortable. We have a constant need for mental stimulation, supported by the practically limitless amounts of content we have access to at all times. But through decades of research on noise, scientists have discovered that excessive noise competes with our ability to think clearly, while silence can improve our decision-making processes and might even keep us in good health. 

Your brain on noise 

The case of public health 

Noise pollution, by definition, is any loud and inescapable sounds that jeopardize the health or well-being of humans or animals.1 In this case, noise becomes more than just a mere nuisance—it can have significant adverse effects on our physical and mental health. 

Several studies have discovered correlations between noise pollution and an array of health issues including heart disease,2 depression,3 and anxiety,4 potentially attributed to repeatedly triggering the body’s stress response.5 After conducting a study on the effects of traffic-related noise in Europe, the WHO even labeled noise pollution as a “threat to public health.”6

This underscores an urgent need for noise management and pollution reduction to safeguard public health on a global scale. Government intervention can massively support this, from thoughtful urban planning of airports and highways to regulated use of noise-absorbing materials in the construction of transportation infrastructure.

Impacts on learning

Other studies have examined the influences of noise on learning ability with unnerving results. A landmark study conducted in the 70s demonstrated that children in classrooms on opposite sides of a school, where one side was within earshot of train tracks and the other side was not, had different learning outcomes. When the city improved the infrastructure to reduce the noise made by the trains, learning outcomes equalized.7 This is a tell-tale sign that enhancing learning environments to improve K-12 education is a crucial investment in the future of young learners.  

Numerous other studies have demonstrated the impact of noise pollution on children’s ability to recognize speech, reading level, and other cognitive performance measures.7, 8, 9, 10 Similar results in terms of mental workload as well as visual and auditory attention have also been observed in young adults.11 Once again, the critical need for noise mitigation strategies is clear since optimal cognitive development depends on our ability to create environments for learning that are free from noise pollution.

Understanding the science

So what is the scientific explanation behind this all? Noise may interfere with our ability to perceive other kinds of stimuli because we involuntarily process the sound, which competes with the mental processes being applied to the task at hand. More simply, the sound is drawing our attention away from what we were previously focusing on.12 

In the long term, as we adapt to chronic noise exposure, our brains learn to block out unwanted noise but inadvertently may ignore other important stimuli in the process. This is likely the case for young children with chronic exposure to noise who have trouble with language development.13

But of course, not all noise is made equal. Relaxing music, audiobooks, birds singing, and the like may all be considered sounds—different from noises like traffic or construction because of our desire to listen to them. And as it turns out, sounds might conversely have a positive impact on our cognitive processes. For instance, classical music may help us absorb new information,14 and listening to nature sounds can improve our mood.15 Check out previous research we’ve done here at TDL on how listening to music while waiting can alter our perception of time, our mood, and our perceptions of who we’re waiting for.

Behavioral Science, Democratized

We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices. 

At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.

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Your brain on silence

Interestingly, we use the same auditory processing mechanisms for interpreting noise as we do for silence. Or, in simpler words, we “hear” silence in the same way we hear noise; it’s something our brain actively has to process.16, 17 However, this does not mean that silence and noise have the same effects on our bodies and minds—in fact, the effects are quite opposite.

In contrast to noise, silence has been shown to decrease heart rate and blood pressure.18 Studies have also shown that just 15 minutes of sitting in silence, alone and comfortable, helps us self-regulate19 and fosters relaxation.20 Silence has even been shown to lead to the production of new neurons in mice.21 More than just relief from noise, silence is regenerative for our bodies and minds.

Taking the bad with the good

Although silence is good for our brains, it may not feel this way—it can be downright uncomfortable. One study demonstrated that many people would rather receive an electric shock (that they previously stated they would pay to avoid) than continue to sit in silence.22

In quiet moments, our sense of self becomes more pronounced as our thoughts turn inward.20 This is a double-edged sword. It can force us to ruminate on things we’d rather not think about, but it can also bring forward new thoughts and ideas. We are given space to reflect on what we really want. Silent thinking has the power to help people meet their goals and find more meaning in their lives.23

Quiet, I’m thinking

The benefits of silence are noticeable in the quality of our decision-making while conversing with others.24 Pauses in discussions or negotiations can sometimes feel awkward, but well-timed silences in these contexts allow us to interrupt default thinking and meaningfully reflect on our point of view.25 A brief delay before responding while in an important conversation can help you clear your mind and articulate yourself better. This can also convey to your decision-making partner that you have a deliberate mindset about the choices at hand.26

Embracing the silence

Noise pollution can have harmful effects on our physical and mental health—but embracing silence could be the antidote. Here are some strategies to help rewire our brains to not only tolerate but appreciate the profound benefits that silence offers.

Transition with relaxing music

Starting with something as simple as relaxing music can serve as an effective bridge to embracing silence. Gentle, soothing tunes can prime our brains for relaxation, easing the transition out of the constant barrage of noise.20 

Make meditation a habit

Incorporating meditation into a daily routine can profoundly impact our ability to enjoy silence. Meditation encourages us to sit quietly, focus on our breath, and clear our minds, which can be challenging—but regular practice can strengthen our mental resilience against noise and distraction, as well as help us become more comfortable with our thoughts.27

Think for pleasure

Employing the technique of “thinking for pleasure”—or focusing only on your thoughts to try and create positive emotions—can also enhance our comfort with silence.28 By asking ourselves simple guiding questions, we can explore our thoughts and memories in a more structured and enjoyable way. This process can transform idle silence into an opportunity for creativity and self-reflection, making the experience of silence more rewarding.29, 30

Silence isn’t merely an absence but a presence that enhances clarity, focus, and the quality of our decisions. If you have access to a quiet space, you should treat it as a strategic asset, both at work and in your daily life. So make sure to tune into the sound of silence—it might just be the best thing you’ve heard all day.

References

  1. Noise pollution. (n.d.). https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/noise-pollution/
  2. Hahad, O., Beutel, M., & Gori, T. (2018, March 29). Annoyance to different noise sources is associated with atrial fibrillation in the Gutenberg Health Study. International Journal of Cardiology. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijcard.2018.03.126
  3. Eze, I. C., Foraster, M., Schaffner, E., Vienneau, D., Pieren, R., Imboden, M., Wunderli, J. M., Cajochen, C., Brink, M., Röösli, M., & Probst‐Hensch, N. (2020). Incidence of depression in relation to transportation noise exposure and noise annoyance in the SAPALDIA study. Environment International, 144, 106014. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2020.106014
  4. Floud, S., Vigna-Taglianti, F., Hansell, A., Blangiardo, M., Houthuijs, D., Breugelmans, O., Cadum, E., Babisch, W., Selander, J., Pershagen, G., Antoniotti, M. C., Pisani, S., Dimakopoulou, K., Haralabidis, A. S., Velonakis, V., & Jarup, L. (2011, July). Medication use in relation to noise from aircraft and road traffic in six European countries: Results of the hyena study. Occupational and environmental medicine. 
  5. Hahad, O., Prochaska, J. H., Daiber, A., & Münzel, T. (2019). Environmental Noise-Induced Effects on Stress Hormones, Oxidative Stress, and Vascular Dysfunction: Key Factors in the Relationship between Cerebrocardiovascular and Psychological Disorders. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2019, 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1155/2019/4623109
  6. World Health Organization: WHO. (2011, March 30). New evidence from WHO on health effects of traffic-related noise in Europe. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/europe/news/item/30-03-2011-new-evidence-from-who-on-health-effects-of-traffic-related-noise-in-europe
  7. Bronzaft, A. L., & McCarthy, D. (1975). The effect of elevated train noise on reading ability. Environment and Behavior, 7(4), 517–528. https://doi.org/10.1177/001391657500700406
  8. McMillan, B. T. M., & Saffran, J. R. (2016). Learning in complex environments: The effects of background speech on early word learning. Child Development, 87(6), 1841–1855. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12559
  9. Klatte, M., Bergström, K., & Lachmann, T. (2013). Does noise affect learning? A short review on noise effects on cognitive performance in children. Frontiers in Psychology, 4. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00578
  10. Hygge, S., Evans, G. W., & Bullinger, M. (2002). A prospective study of some effects of aircraft noise on cognitive performance in schoolchildren. Psychological Science, 13(5), 469–474. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00483
  11. Jafari, M. J., Khosrowabadi, R., Khodakarim, S., & Mohammadian, F. (2019). The effect of noise exposure on cognitive performance and brain activity patterns. Open Access Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences, 7(17), 2924–2931. https://doi.org/10.3889/oamjms.2019.742
  12. Hughes, R. W. (2014). Auditory distraction: A duplex-mechanism account. PsyCh Journal, 3(1), 30–41. https://doi.org/10.1002/pchj.44
  13. Novotney, A. (n.d.). Silence, please. https://www.apa.org. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/07-08/silence
  14. Raypole, C. (2023, May 30). Music and studying: it’s complicated. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/does-music-help-you-study#negative-effects
  15. Song, I., Baek, K. S., Kim, C., & Song, C. (2023). Effects of nature sounds on the attention and physiological and psychological relaxation. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 86, 127987. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ufug.2023.127987
  16. Goh, R. Z., Phillips, I., & Firestone, C. (2023). The perception of silence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 120(29). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2301463120
  17. Lopez Lloreda, C. (2023, July 10). Our brains may process silence and sounds the same way. Science | AAAS. https://www.science.org/content/article/our-brains-may-process-silence-and-sounds-same-way
  18. Bernardi, L., Porta, C., & Sleight, P. (2005b). Cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and respiratory changes induced by different types of music in musicians and non-musicians: the importance of silence. Heart, 92(4), 445–452. https://doi.org/10.1136/hrt.2005.064600
  19. Nguyen, T., Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Solitude as an approach to affective Self-Regulation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(1), 92–106. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167217733073
  20. Pfeifer, E., & Wittmann, M. (2020). Waiting, thinking, and feeling: variations in the perception of time during silence. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00602
  21. Kirste, I., Nicola, Z., Kronenberg, G., Walker, T. L., Liu, R. C., & Kempermann, G. (2013). Is silence golden? Effects of auditory stimuli and their absence on adult hippocampal neurogenesis. Brain Structure & Function, 220(2), 1221–1228. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-013-0679-3
  22. Wilson, T. D., Reinhard, D. A., Westgate, E. C., Gilbert, D. T., Ellerbeck, N. E., Hahn, C., Brown, C. L., & Shaked, A. (2014). Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science, 345(6192), 75–77. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1250830
  23. Alahmadi, S., Buttrick, N.R., Gilbert, D.T. et al. You can do it if you really try: The effects of motivation on thinking for pleasure. Motiv Emot 41, 545–561 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-017-9625-7
  24. Radun, J., Maula, H., Rajala, V., Scheinin, M., & Hongisto, V. (2020). Speech is special: The stress effects of speech, noise, and silence during tasks requiring concentration. Indoor Air, 31(1), 264–274. https://doi.org/10.1111/ina.12733
  25. Cho, Y., Zhang, T., & Overbeck, J. R. (2015). The benefits of silence in negotiation: brief moments of quiet help value claiming and creation. Proceedings - Academy of Management, 2015(1), 12027. https://doi.org/10.5465/ambpp.2015.12027abstract
  26. Curhan, J. R., Overbeck, J. R., Cho, Y., Zhang, T., & Yu, Y. (2022). Silence is golden: Extended silence, deliberative mindset, and value creation in negotiation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 107(1), 78–94. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000877
  27. Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress. (2023, December 14). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/meditation/in-depth/meditation/art-20045858
  28. Wilson, T. D., Westgate, E. C., Buttrick, N. R., & Gilbert, D. T. (2019). The mind is its own place: The difficulties and benefits of thinking for pleasure. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (pp. 175–221). https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.aesp.2019.05.001
  29. Westgate, E. C., Wilson, T. D., Buttrick, N. R., Furrer, R. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2021). What makes thinking for pleasure pleasurable? Emotion, 21(5), 981–989. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000941
  30. Westgate, E. C., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2017). With a little help for our thoughts: Making it easier to think for pleasure. Emotion, 17(5), 828–839. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000278

About the Author

Sophie Cleff

Sophie Cleff

Sophie is an Associate at The Decision Lab. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology and Immunology from McGill University. She is passionate about applying her research background to interdisciplinary problems, especially related to public health. Before joining The Decision Lab, Sophie worked with the Montreal Children’s Hospital and Translating Emergency Knowledge for Kids (TREKK) to increase the quality, safety, and integrity of research in pediatric medicine. In her free time, she enjoys crocheting and playing the guitar.

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