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“Silence, Please”

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“Silence, Please.” No one expected that such a plain, nondescript phrase would be used by the government of Finland to promote their country.

It was in March, 2010 when a group of 100 marketing experts met in Helsinki to brainstorm on how to attract tourists to Finland. Over drinks they discussed the various strengths of their country. The problem was Finland was known as a quiet country. Finland is also known for exceptional teachers, and an abundance of wild berries and mushrooms — not exactly compelling ideas to make a country a world-class tourist destination.

Then out of the blue someone said that quiet wasn’t such a bad thing after all. That set them to thinking.

A few months later, they came out with a “Country Brand Report.” It highlighted themes that could make Finland a preferred tourist destination. Among other things, it emphasized Finland’s renowned educational system and school of functional design. However, somewhat surprisingly, a brand new theme emerged from the report: silence. “Silence is a resource. In the future, people will be prepared to pay for the experience of silence,” the report stated.

A year later, the Finnish Tourist Board decided to put out a series of photographs of lone figures in Finland’s official travel site, with the caption “Silence, Please.” It is one of the most popular pages, and has proven to be the most popular theme in attracting tourists to Finland.

Why are people attracted to silence? Are there tangible effects of silence?

In 1859, Florence Nightingale wrote,”Unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that can be inflicted on sick or well.” She observed that noise can be a source of distress, and loss of sleep for recovering patients. Surprisingly, she asserted that sudden noise can be a cause of death among sick children! Was she exaggerating?

Research proves that she was right. Chronic noise can cause high blood pressure. Increased levels of noise are linked to sleep loss and heart disease. In 2011, the World Health Organization concluded that 340 million residents of Western Europe annually lost a million years of healthy life because of noise. It also asserted that 3,000 deaths was directly attributed to excessive noise.

Silence as a subject of scientific research only began to appear in 2006. Strangely, it was studied only accidentally.

The physician Luciano Bernardi started out by studying the physiological effects of music. He says, “We didn’t think about the effect of silence. That was not meant to be studied specifically.”

Bernardi observed two dozen subjects while they listened to six musical tracks. He found out that the effects of listening to music could be correlated with changes in blood pressure, carbon dioxide and circulation in the brain. It is not surprising that a physiological change is linked to a condition of physical arousal. This made sense since active listening requires alertness and attention.

But what surprised him was the drastic effect of the inserted stretches of silence between the musical tracks. The two-minute pauses proved more relaxing than listening to music!

Silence, which was considered irrelevant at the start of the research, became the main object of the study. What they concluded, is that silence seemed heightened by contrast, perhaps because it gave the subjects a release from paying attention to the music. “Perhaps the arousal is something that concentrates the mind in one direction, so that when there is nothing more arousing, then you have deeper relaxation,” he says.

Ever since Bernardi’s ground-breaking study, other neurological experiments have reinforced Bernardi’s key findings.

Noora Vikman is a consultant on silence for the government of Finland. She lives in the eastern part of Finland, a quiet and isolated place, surrounded by quiet lakes and forests. Standing in the Finnish wilderness, she strained her ears to pick out the faintest sounds of animals or wind. “It’s strange,” she says, “the way you change. You have all the power–you can break the silence with even with the smallest sounds. And then you don’t want to do it. You try to be as quiet as you can be.”

— Matt

Note: This blog post is based on the article “This Is Your Brain on Silence” by Daniel A. Gross

Written by MattAndJojang

September 2, 2014 at 7:20 pm