In 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board released a series of photographs of lone figures in the wilderness, with the caption “Silence, Please.” An international “country branding” consultant, Simon Anholt, proposed the playful tagline “No talking, but action.” And a Finnish watch company, Rönkkö, launched its own new slogan: “Handmade in Finnish silence.”
“We decided, instead of saying that it’s really empty and really quiet and nobody is talking about anything here, let’s embrace it and make it a good thing,” explains Eva Kiviranta, who manages social media for VisitFinland.com.
So Finland 4 years ago decided to capitalize on their silent status seeing that the world thrives on noise. However on the scientific front, the sound of silence stimulates a bigger response in the brain of a listener than music itself. According to research, silence provides intriguing support for modern composers who put as much emphasis on a lack of sound as sound itself.
Led by Dr. Vinod Menon of Stanford University School of Medicine, the researchers published their findings in 2010 in the journal Neuron. The team showed that music engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating the event in memory.
In what has to be one of the most pleasant brain studies on record, researchers asked subjects to listen to symphonies by the 18th century English baroque composer William Boyce, chosen because they are relatively short and comprise well-defined movements, punctuated by pauses.
As the subjects listened the researchers scanned their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging. This widely used technique involves using harmless magnetic fields and radio waves to measure blood flow in brain regions, which reveals the amount of activity in those regions.
But while music may soothe the savage beast, the brain responds efficiently to the sound of silence. Peak brain activity occurred during a short period between musical movements, when seemingly NOTHING was happening. Two distinct networks of brain regions on the right side of the brain were involved, suggesting it was excited at the anticipation of more to come, or predicting the next movement.
“Our study suggests that silence, appropriately structured, is a device that allows the composer to achieve certain goals,” Dr. Menon told The Daily Telegraph. “It can arrest the listener’s attention and create conditions that facilitate anticipatory processes related to previously heard sequences of sounds. I suspect that silences inserted by composers such as Stockhausen and Philip Glass can elicit intense physiological and brain responses, although how long these responses can be sustained and manipulated is not yet clear. Modern brain imaging techniques might help to clarify how silence can be manipulated to create novel musical experiences.”
Karlheinz Stockhausen, a German musical composer discussed these experiences, for example in one composition where there are silences up to about one minute. “I discovered a new way to prepare for a certain duration of silence by what happens just before the silence, so that one can hear again, like an echo, the figures or structures before the silences. I think there is a very secret science of musical composition in knowing what one has to do before a silence in order to make the following silence meaningful.”
A team of University of Oregon researchers isolated an independent processing channel of synapses inside the brain’s auditory cortex that deals specifically with shutting off sound processing at appropriate times. Such regulation is vital for hearing and for understanding speech.
The discovery, found in the Feb. 2010 issue of the journal Neuron, goes against a long-held assumption that the signaling of a sound’s appearance and its subsequent disappearance are both handled by the same pathway. The new finding, which supports an emerging theory that a separate set of synapses is responsible, could lead to new, distinctly targeted therapies such as improved hearing devices, said Michael Wehr, a professor of psychology and member of the UO Institute of Neuroscience.
To do the research, Mr. Wehr and two UO undergraduate students — lead author Ben Scholl, then a graduate student at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, and Xiang Gao — monitored the activity of neurons and their connecting synapses as rats were exposed to millisecond bursts of tones, looking at the responses to both the start and end of a sound. They tested varying lengths and frequencies of sounds in a series of experiments.
“It looks like there is a whole separate channel that goes all the way from the ear up to the brain that is specialized to process sound offsets,” Mr. Wehr said. The two channels finally come together in a brain region called the auditory cortex, situated in the temporal lobe.
The research team also noted that responses to the end of a sound involved different frequency tuning, duration and amplitude than those involved in processing the start of a sound, findings that agree with a trend cited in at least three other studies in the last decade.
It became clear with the findings that one set of synapses responded “very strongly at the onset of sounds,” but a different set of synapses responded to the sudden disappearance of sounds. There was no overlap of the two responding sets, the researchers noted. The end of one sound did not affect the response to a new sound, thus reinforcing the idea of separate processing channels.
“Being able to perceive when sound stops is very important for speech processing,” Mr. Wehr said. “One of the really hard problems in speech is finding the boundaries between the different parts of words. It is really not well understood how the brain does that.”
As an example, he noted the difficulty some people have when they are at a noisy cocktail party and are trying to follow one conversation amid competing background noises. “We think that we’ve discovered brain mechanisms that are important in finding the necessary boundaries between words that help to allow for successful speech recognition and hearing,” he said.
The research conducted aimed to provide a general understanding of how areas of the brain function. These findings could also prove useful in working with children who have deficits in speech and learning, as well as in the design of hearing aids and cochlear implants. He also noted that people with dyslexia have problems defining the boundaries of sounds in speech, and tapping these processing areas in therapy could boost reading skills.
In the course of developing the human capacity, movement and noise require a cease and desist button for either of them to matter in the first place. In spite of the brain’s 24/7 processes, most of them we actually only experience, not hear. Thus the point of silence — it is the definition of a fulfilled experience that personalizes what otherwise would be lost in the noise.