The Positive Effects of Silence & Nature Immersion On The Human Brain And How To Organize Your Life To Get More Of Both!

admin // November 22 // 0 Comments

“I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own.” Chaim Potok

Let’s get one thing straight. Silence and nature immersion are good for everyone! While some people claim to be more comfortable in bustling, busy, noisy urban environments, there are scientifically proven physical factors that indicate otherwise. Even if you enjoy the city for many reasons and feel more psychologically at ease, your body still needs the occasional immersion in quieter, greener spaces. In other words, you might not think you need time out, but your nervous system does. Here’s why, if you’re not already convinced, plus some ideas on how you can integrate more silence and nature time into your life

38.1. Negative Effects of Noise

“Silence is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing.” William S. Burroughs

As mentioned, there’s a lot of research out there showing the negative impact of noise on our systems. The main issue is that noise causes the body to secrete higher levels of stress hormones As Azriel ReShel synthesizes in his article on noise and the brain, “sound travels to the brain as electrical signals via the ear. Even when we are sleeping these sound waves cause the body to react and activate the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with memory and emotion, leading to the release of stress hormones.

So, living in a consistently noisy environment will cause you to experience extremely high levels of these harmful hormones.”[1] This increased level of stress hormones can lead to such things as high blood pressure, heart disease, tinnitus and, most commonly, loss of sleep (everything from insomnia to the inability to reach or stay in deep sleep mode, or simply never feeling fully rested…).

Tests have also been done showing the way that these same stress hormones can cause us to essentially “adapt” or begin to ignore the noise that’s stressing our bodies out. One study, performed by Professor Gary W. Evans from Cornell University and published in Psychological Science, charted the effects of airport noise on school children in Munich. The study showed that children exposed to noise developed a stress response which actually caused them to ignore the noise. He found that the children not only ignored the harmful noise of the airport, but also other everyday noises, such as speech.[2] As professor Evans puts it “this study is among the strongest, probably the most definitive proof that noise – even at levels that don’t cause hearing damage – causes stress and is harmful to humans.”

Studies performed by the World Health Organization in Europe also concluded that noise was responsible for 340 million residents of Western Europe (about the population of the United States) losing a cumulative million years of healthy life every year, as well as being at the root of around 3,000 heart disease deaths per year due to excessive noise. They also emphasize the vulnerability of certain groups such as children and the elderly, as well as people in income brackets who can’t afford to live in quieter neighbourhoods. They state that for children “Impairment of early childhood development and education caused by noise may have lifelong effects on academic achievement and health.”[3] Needless to say, the effects of noise should not be taken lightly!

38.2 Silence Allows Your Brain and Body To Regenerate and Process Information Better

“Silence is a source of Great Strength.” Lao Tzu

Research by a Duke University regenerative biologist, Imke Kirste, discovered that two hours of silence per day prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the brain region related to the formation of memory, involving the senses. They concluded that conditions like dementia, depression and others that have been linked to decreasing rates of neurogenesis in the hippocampus, could be treated through exposure to silence.[4]

A 2013 study by Joseph Moran that when the brain is able to rest quietly it integrates external and internal information into “a conscious workspace.” [5] In other words, when we’re in silence and not occupied with other tasks is when our brain is able to process our experiences and the information garnered from the world around us and the people in it. It allows us to access deeper levels of self-reflection, which in turn allows for us to adapt to changing conditions, to observe and integrate whatever feedback we’ve been getting and, essentially, to evolve as people and maintain our overall well-being.

On a similar note, psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory states that when you’re in an environment with lower levels of sensory input, the brain can ‘recover’ some of its cognitive abilities. In the current digital age, our brains get less time to switch off. We’re constantly processing enormous amounts of information. The constant attention demands of modern life place a lot of stress on our prefrontal cortex–the part of the brain responsible for making decisions, solving problems and more. When we spend time alone in silence, our brains are able to relax and release this constant focus.[6]

38.3 Positive Effects of Nature Connection

“There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” Rachel Carson

It goes without saying that you’re more likely to find silence in contexts where you’re immersed in nature. That in and of itself has huge benefits, as you’ve seen above. Aside from that there’s the basic fact of the way better air quality you get when in a nature immersion situation. There’s also a slough of different types of research showing the myriad benefits of exposure to natural environments on every aspect of human health, from physical to psychological. Research performed by the University of California showed the restorative effects of experiences in nature and demonstrated that patients heal more quickly when exposed to natural environments.[7] Being in sight of natural features has been shown to improve self-discipline in inner-city girls.[8] And the list goes on.

Studies conducted at the University of Delaware on stress recovery during exposure to urban versus natural environments showed, unsurprisingly, huge positive impacts in being exposed to nature. The study states that “recovery was faster and more complete when subjects were exposed to natural rather than urban environments…responses to nature had a salient parasympathetic nervous system component…restorative influences of nature involve a shift towards a more positively-toned emotional state, positive changes in physiological activity levels, and that these changes are accompanied by sustained attention/intake. Content differences in terms of natural vs human-made properties appeared decisive in accounting for the differences in recuperation and perceptual intake.” [9] Need we say more?

38.4 So How Do You Get More Silence and More Nature?

“Living as we do in an age of noise and bluster, success is now measured accordingly. We must all be seen, and heard, and on the air.” Daphne du Maurier

  1. Be intentional with your work and home spaces. If you don’t live in the countryside, choose to live in proximity to natural spaces even if you’re in the city. When possible, have at least one window of your home or work looking onto a green space, trees, etc.
  2. Fill your home with plants. If you’ve had lots of houseplants die in the past, get yourself some hardy varieties that don’t need much watering like most of the cactus family and a lot of succulents (check out drought tolerant plant lists!). House plants also help filter and improve air quality!
  3. Take silence breaks throughout your day. Even if you can’t get to a natural environment regularly, simply sitting in silence at regular intervals during your day will have a positive impact on your brain and lower stress levels in your body. You can turn this into a meditation practice, or simply practice the art of doing nothing and being present. To do this effectively you want as little information input as possible during your silence breaks, so turn off your phone and computer and anything else you may be receiving input from, even if it’s technically “silent.”
  4. Make nature and silence time the focus of your holidays and outings. Instead of going to a(nother) city when you have time off, prioritize outings to places where you can slow down, disconnect and recharge.
  5. Try out a silent retreat. Vipassana is probably the best known form of silent retreat but there are also less rigorous silent retreats where the focus isn’t on disciplined meditation practices. If you have the time and interest, these can be worth exploring. You can even go on your own DIY silent retreat if you can find a secluded cabin or isolated airbnb to hang out in alone for a few days!
  6. Do more activities in nature. What do you do for fun or to get your exercise? Can you shift those activities so you spend more time in natural environments?It could be as simple as doing your daily run in a park instead of around the block, or it could be organizing kayaking or hiking trips with friends. Whatever you can make time and space for in your life, do it! If you live in an area that’s reasonably quiet with decent air quality, try and do more of your daily activities outside! There are so many little things in a day that could be done outside when weather permits, but we forget to take advantage of those times (like eating, coffee breaks, walking to work, even writing or typing, etc.).
  7. Join or start a community garden. If you don’t have easy access to green spaces and don’t have space for a garden, see if your area has a community garden you can join, or organize to get a new one started one with a group of friends!
  8. Choose work that gets you outside more! For those of you open to major life changes or looking for a new direction, why not set yourself up for more nature time from the get go? Become an outdoor or adventure tourism guide, do urban landscaping, start an edible lawn project, become a gardener, do professional outdoor sports, start an organic farm, run outdoor kids programs or a summer camp…your creative thinking is the limit when it comes to inventing your dream job!
  9. Move to the country (or get access to a cabin or “cottage”…)! Speaking of starting over, this is another option for those of you feeling the urgent need for more silence and nature time. You could also consider investing in a permanent space of some kind in the countryside, by yourself or with family or friends.

Action Point Summary – Here’s What You Need to Do Now!

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Albert Einstein

Leave it to Einstein to put it so well! Aside from all the awesome physical and psychological benefits of spending more time in silence and in natural environments, there’s also the simple fact that silence and nature help us reconnect to something “bigger” than ourselves, which in turn allows us to make a lot more sense out of life.

  1. Take noise seriously and analyze your living space. What are the noise levels where you live? Is noise possibly impacting negatively on your overall health, with or without your full awareness?
  2. If the answer is yes, what can you do to reduce the noise you’re exposed to, especially when sleeping? Do you need to consider moving, or is it a simple matter of better sound insulation or switching your bedroom from one side of the building to another and wearing earplugs?
  3. Choose to live and work close to natural environments as much as possible and work on your green thumb (i.e. get lots of houseplants and don’t kill them!)
  4. Integrate silence into your daily and long-term life routines. Take silence breaks throughout the day and try out longer periods of silence whenever possible by going on retreats or simply spending some time alone (and unplugged!) every now and then.
  5. Exercise and do hobbies outdoors as much as possible.
  6. Garden! At home, on your balcony, collectively…
  7. Need a more radical change? Switch to outside job or move to the country! Don’t let imposed ideas of success limit your dreams. Only you know what kind of life you really want to lead!
  1. Science Says Silence is Vital for Our Brains, Azriel ReShel, uplift.com
  2. Science Says Silence is Vital for Our Brains, Azriel ReShel, uplift.com
  3. World Health Organization, Data and Statistics, euro.who.int
  4. Is silence golden? Effects of auditory stimuli and their absence on adult hippocampal neurogenesis, Imke Kirste and associates, US National Library of Medicine, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  5. What can the organization of the brain’s default mode network tell us about self-knowledge?, Joseph Moran and associates, Frontiers in Neuroscience, frontiersin.org
  6. Attention restoration theory, wikipedia.org
  7. Restorative Effects of Natural Environment Experiences, Hartig, Mann & Evans, University of California, journals.sagepub.com
  8. Views of Nature and Self Discipline: Evidence from Inner City Children,Taylor A.F., Kuo F.E., Sullivan W.C. (2001). Archived 2008-11-20 at the Wayback Machine in Journal of Environmental Psychology (2001), vol. 21.
  9. Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Ulrich, R.S.; Simons, R.F.; Losito, B.D.; Fiorito, E.; Miles, M.A.; Zelson, M. J. Environ. Psychol. 1991, 11, 201-230.

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