The Science of Silence
In a culture that says more is better, being busy can make you feel more important, fulfilled, and productive. As a result, the art of silence has almost evaporated from our culture altogether.
Is this a bad thing?
Silence can feel like a huge waste of time, so maybe it is good that we have forgotten to practice it. But I believe otherwise, and science itself backs up my beliefs.
Can the practice of “being still” really lead to a better life? Can something as simple as practicing “being silent” be a key to not only stress reduction but also healthier emotions in relationships? Can that practice lead to positive changes in the physical structure of our brains?
These questions intrigue scientists. The word that science uses for the state of “being silent” is “mindfulness.” There are many differing practices and definitions for “mindfulness,” but all agree it includes setting aside mental distractions to pay attention to the here and now.
“Is anyone actually interested in mindfulness?” If you asked me that question twenty years ago, I would have said, “no.” If you asked me today, it is a totally different story.
Twenty years ago, there was only one research study on the subject of mindfulness. However, from 2013 to 2015 that number exploded to 216. That’s a huge jump in studies and awareness! Also, a quick internet search shows the number is ever increasing.
Studies on Mindfulness
While the exact “best practice” for mindfulness is not yet defined, most studies agree regular practice of mindfulness (at least 4 times per week) over several years is needed to see changes that hold up to scientific scrutiny.
One such study looked at the impact of practicing mindfulness on the thickness of the cerebral cortex of the brain. A thicker cerebral cortex is associated with a brain’s ability to process more information. Also, the cortex tends to get thinner in the aging process.
This study looked at 20 people who had been practicing mindfulness for between 7 to 9 years, and doing so for an average of 4 to 6 hours per week. They also attended a one week long retreat for mindfulness. The control group, who did not practice mindfulness, consisted of 15 people who were matched for age, sex, and educational level. The results of the study showed increased thickness of the cerebral cortex in specific areas (somatosensory, auditory, visual, and interoceptive). The researchers concluded that the practice of mindfulness could have a positive impact on both cognitive and emotional brain health.
How To Practice This Art Of Silence
While not all of us are ready to set aside 4 to 6 hours a week, perhaps leaning into this practice can still have positive impacts such as less anxiety, clearer thoughts, and overall happiness. A big part of this is not judging yourself for being silent and doing—seemingly—nothing. Certainly, if we can practice setting aside judgment of our own thoughts, we can do a better job of not judging others so quickly as well.
That would definitely be a step toward more happiness!
You might be wondering how to start practicing mindfulness or what practices are involved in mindfulness. Many experts point to meditation, contemplative practices, or prayer as qualities of mindfulness. Furthermore, many agree it takes repeated practice to set aside your thoughts and create a space to be present in the moment.
It can take several tries to be silent and suspend judgment on the thoughts in your mind that attempt to break into your silence. Tuning into your current senses, such as your breathing, a gentle wind rushing over your skin, or a feeling of warmth can help bring about a mindful awareness.
Some people find that practicing a form of mindfulness while on a walk is easier than sitting still. Others find that sitting in a comfortable chair with their eyes closed while also focusing on their breathing can usher them into a mindfulness state. It varies from person to person.
During this time many find it helpful, when they notice judgments arise, to take a mental note of them and let them pass by. Our minds often get carried away. Mindfulness requires returning again and again to the present moment.
As a Christian, I prefer to practice prayer during my times of mindfulness. For me, this is powerful not only to clear my mind and de-stress. It is powerful because I know God can hear me as well.
Using prayer as a form of “mindfulness” gives the added benefit of a connection with my Creator without interference from others influences. It is the most simple and beautiful form of connection…being in the present moment with the One that created the moment.
The Creator of the brain knew that this simple practice of being still would lead to health. It is amazing to see that science backs up this ancient practice.
Want to learn more about what prayer is all about? A few friends of mine made an entertaining video all about prayer and what it means. They answer Google’s most asked questions about prayer.
Whatever you do, I hope you are able to start practicing a form of mindfulness in your own life. You may find benefits of a healthier brain.