The problem of embracing silence in an age of noise

The most exciting developments in brain research—itself an exciting field—today have to do with neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. Think of our brain as a giant plastic ball. Researchers want to pull and push it, mould it into suppleness, make it nimble and bounce it back into youthful health.

Neuroplasticity is the buzzword—it alludes to brain adaptability. Neurogenesis or the growing of new neurons happens as a matter of course during pre-natal development. Neurons continue to proliferate like crazy while we crawl, stand, walk and run. This regeneration slows down considerably as we age.

Adult neurogenesis was considered to be non-existent till the mid-1980s. Today, it is established that exercise, proper sleep and, yes, certain drugs (cannabinoids) can help neural stem cells generate. The exact ways in which the size and growth of the hippocampus can be stimulated is still being explored. Many of the findings occur by accident.

Duke University regenerative biologist Imke Kirste was studying the effects of various sounds on the brains of adult mice. She divided the mice into four groups and fed them different stimuli: Mozart piano music, calls of baby mice, white noise and silence. The goal was to figure out is certain sounds could help neurogenesis.

The researchers found that except for white noise, all the auditory stimuli, including silence, increased “precursor cell proliferation”. However, after seven days, they found, much to their surprise, that “only silence” gave the most significant increases in brain cells.

Their results, published with the title, Is silence golden? Effects of auditory stimuli and their absence on adult hippocampal neurogenesis provides support to a nascent area of research: the role of silence in brain improvement.

Mindfulness and meditation are now passé. As is the role of exercise in brain regeneration. As Kirste’s paper says, “We have previously hypothesized that the reason why physical activity increases precursor cell proliferation in adult neurogenesis is that movement serves as non-specific signal to evoke the alertness required to meet cognitive demands. Thereby a pool of immature neurons is generated that are potentially recruitable by subsequent cognitive stimuli.”

Today, firms like Lumosity and BrainHQ have made brain training a commercial offering. That our ageing memory and reaction speed can be improved via training is their claim; one that some experts have debunked.

There is broad consensus among experts that physical exercise offers a wide spectrum of benefits including increasing the size of the hippocampus: the section of the brain associated with emotion, memory and the autonomic nervous system. Some studies show that picking up a demanding hobby like playing tennis or the violin can cause the brain to regenerate.

But silence? That’s a new finding. Sure, mindfulness and meditation have been studied and their virtues documented to the point that they are now passé. Silence is not as widely explored or documented. Poets, artists, writers and musicians, however, have long used the power of silence to further their creative practices.

In Sanskrit poetry, for instance, texts list three qualities necessary for a good poet: pratibha(poetic genius), vyutpatti (knowledge or learning) and abhyasa (effort).

Effort and learning can be cultivated through training. But poetic genius—that elusive flash of insight that raises a work from the realms of great to extraordinary—comes from a fickle muse and is not easy to achieve consistently.

Throughout the centuries, inventors and artists have plotted about how to get their creative muse to stay on. Or at least appear in a consistent fashion.

Thomas Alva Edison the scientist and Salvador Dali the artist used to take afternoon naps while holding steel ball bearings in their hands. The moments before sleep, they believe, was when their creative juices flowed and hence had to be captured. The moment they dozed off, their hand would relax and the ball bearings would clatter on the ground. Then Edison and Dali would presumably spring to their feet and write down all the ideas that their unconscious mind had generated.

In a TED talk, author Elizabeth Gilbert explained how the ancients didn’t view a person as a genius. Rather, genius was an insight that came to people when they were in a heightened state of awareness; when they were relaxed enough to listen to the messages that the universe was sending them; when their minds were free and their consciousness expanded enough to connect disparate ideas; and which is the core of all creativity and offers grist for ideas and people who come to be called geniuses.

The question facing average, non-genius human beings is how to enhance this awareness and become attuned to new ideas. How to be open of mind and relaxed of spirit so that the inner voice that whispers its secrets to us can be heard?

Silence can be one way. Silence could well be the last refuge of the restless mind: the place where ideas come to rest and to be released.

Ancient Romans used to watch the flight of birds to figure out patterns that portended the future. They called this augury.

The most famous example came from Rome’s founding story, in which the twins Romulus and Remus each wanted to build the city of Rome in two different spots: Romulus on the Palatine hill and Remus on the Aventine hill. They set up “augural tents” in different spots and watched the sky. Remus saw six vultures but Romulus saw twelve and goes on to build the city that bears his name.

Divining using birds and animals remained part of most ancient civilizations. Now, I stand on my balcony every day and watch birds. I see wagtails, bulbuls, sunbirds and black kites. They flit about the trees and glide in the sky. But I don’t have the patience or stillness to observe patterns in their movements and glean omens from these patterns.

That requires the still expansiveness that monks cultivate. That requires silencing the mind’s chatter so that clarity can percolate through. Today, instead of omens, we use apps to guide whether to embark on a particular project.

This then is the problem with silence in an age of noise. Most of us don’t know how to experience, process, use or embrace silence. Until I embarked on this project, I didn’t have a moment of silence. Indeed, I didn’t know what to do with it.

My default mode during any lull in the day was to whip out my phone and recheck the message that I had sent one minute ago, waiting for the addictive jolt of a reply.

The immediate gratification that comes from every Snapchat story, Instagram or Facebook “like” and Twitter reply leaves little room for the long haul that is the road to quieting the mind. I am still a novice at this. Every day, I sit on a mat, stay silent, and think: now what?

In his influential book, Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise, Thich Nhat Hanh, describes five kinds of sounds that arise from silence.

The first, he says, is the “wonderful sound”, the sound of the “wonders of life that are calling you”. The second is the “Sound of the One Who Observes the World”. The third is the Brahma sound—the sound of creation. The fourth is the “sound of the rising tide”, or the voice of the Buddha. The fifth is the “Sound that Transcends All Sounds of the World”.

I sat for half an hour waiting to hear these sounds and only heard a car reversing, a muezzin calling, a parakeet screeching, my neighbour yelling at her maid and a horn tooting. I have miles to go and promises to keep before I can hear the sounds of the silences that Nanh is talking about. So I do the next best thing: I throw money at the problem.

My noise-cancelling headphones are amazing. They allow me to stay in silence in the middle of the constant noise that is the melody of India.

I put them on one afternoon while stuck in a traffic jam. Having spent money on them, I feel that I ought to make them count, to think deep thoughts. I want to declutter my head and allow my innermost desires to rise. Caught in the maelstrom of life, I have suppressed reflection for so long that I no longer know how to go about it.

In a profile that I wrote for Mint, Nandan Nilekani once told me about his process of reflection. Every few months, he said, he sat with a piece of paper pretty much by himself and reflected on the past and what goals he wanted to achieve in the future.

“How will you know if your dream has come true if you don’t even know what your dreams are?” asked a friend.

Dreams are easy for me to figure out. Blowsy and ethereal, they don’t need any connection with reality. I dream of doing somersaults. I dream of being in the circus—specifically, a trapeze artist.

I dream of owning an Hermes Jypsiere bag in orange. I dream of spending a month in Burgundy drinking DRC wines and then moving to Bordeaux and drinking all the big five: Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Mouton Rothschild and Haut Brion.

I dream of dancing the tango in Argentina, preferably with Antonio Banderas, and driving down the German Autobahn on a Tesla convertible.

Dreams are easy. It is the goals that I have trouble with. Goals need to be accountable, measurable, and have some link with reality. Can I use silence to figure out my goals? And how is this different from writing a to-do list?

So I sit in silence one day, with a blank sheet in my hands, and confront my fears.

The trouble with vocalizing what you want is that you realize how hard you have to work. You may want to speak fluent French, but will you put in the effort that it takes to learn it?

I am an ageing rock-star; actually, not even a rock star, I think to myself. I am a worthless piece of… well, a has-been anyway. How did silence get me to this? I am breathless. I feel like I am having a panic attack and reach for the only thing that will soothe me in this instance: my phone.

Rather than go deep within myself, I ought to use silence to solve problems. In my next missive, I confront an easy yet hard one.

More in coming weeks on Silence and Sound.

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