“Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation.” — Jean Arp
I pruned trees for a woman in Berkeley who always had her television on. Loud. She would invite me in after I was done with my work, serve me lemonade, and write me a check while soap opera actors on her gigantic television screen emoted and spoke to each other as no humans have ever spoken to each other except in soap operas and bad plays.
“You make my garden look so nice!” the woman shouted over the projections of people talking on her gigantic television screen. “Tamed the wild jungle!”
The third year I pruned her trees, I felt I knew her well enough to ask if she wouldn’t mind turning down the volume on her television while we visited. She reddened and said, “Don’t tell me you’re one of those anti-television people.”
“I’m hard of hearing,” I lied, “and it’s easier for me to visit with you without the television so loud.”
She turned down the television and said, “Truth is I don’t even notice it.”
“Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.” — Francis Bacon
I was in the Mendocino Market a few days ago, the best sandwich shop in Mendocino, feeling lucky to have placed my order moments before a large mob of ravenous teenagers rambled down from the high school for lunch.
Three girls stood next to me, waiting for their sandwiches, and one of them said, “If they don’t fix my iPod today I’ll go insane.”
One of her compatriots opined, “I couldn’t deal with it. I’d feel so cut off.”
The third girl added, “That’s why I always have at least two I know are working. I totally freak when I don’t have my tunes.”
I was reminded of a woman I was once entangled with who could not bear silence. We would return to our house after being out for a few hours and before doing anything else she would rush to the stereo and turn on the radio or play an LP. If she chose to play a record rather than listen to the radio, the moment the record ended, and often before the last cut on the album was over, she would start another record or turn on the radio.
When she came home and found me sitting in silence, she would immediately turn on the radio or play a record. When we went on walks, she always wore a Walkman so she would have music to walk to. She ignited the stereo in the car before starting the engine and played music as we drove that was too loud to talk over. Whenever I turned the music down to say something to her, she would give me a pained expression to let me know she preferred I shout over rather than turn her music down. When we went to quiet restaurants she would give me a horrified look and say, “Creepy,” and we would leave and go somewhere loud.
“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” — Aldous Huxley
A friend who knows of my love of the short stories of Guy de Maupassant recommended the movie Le Plaisir, composed of three films based on three of Maupassant’s short stories. The longest of the three excellent films is about the madam of a popular whorehouse in a coastal city who takes her prostitutes with her to attend the communion of her niece in a little farming town, the six gaudy whores causing quite a stir in the rural village. The prostitutes find the deep quiet of the country so alarming they cannot sleep a wink during their one night there, so accustomed are they to the noisy brothel and the incessant sounds of the city.
“Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.” — Khalil Gibran
A 2006 study by Luciano Bernardi to measure the effects of music on the brain revealed that impacts of music could be read in the bloodstream via changes in blood pressure, carbon dioxide and circulation in the brain. But his most striking finding came about when he randomly inserted stretches of silence between the music sequences. Two minutes of silence proved far more relaxing than “relaxing” music.
In 2010, while observing the brains of mice being stimulated with bursts of sound, researchers at the University of Oregon found that the onset of sound prompts a specialized network of neurons in the auditory cortex to light up, but when sounds continue in a constant manner, the neurons stop reacting.
In 2013, a scientist at Duke University examined the effect of sounds on the brains of adult mice by exposing four groups of mice to various auditory stimuli: music, baby mouse calls, white noise, and silence. The scientist’s expectation was that baby mouse calls, a form of mouse communication, might prompt the development of new brain cells. She used silence as a control and expected it to produce no effect. Yet she discovered that two hours of silence per day prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the seat of memory, whereas the baby mouse calls, white noise, and music produced no measureable cell development.
“Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” — Elie Wiesel
Before I moved to Mendocino, expeditions to the ocean involved long drives through terrible city traffic before reaching the less traveled country roads leading to the sea. On one such expedition to Point Reyes with a friend, we found a lovely spot on a sand dune overlooking a pristine beach and sat quietly for an hour enjoying the revivifying effects of silence.
We might have luxuriated in that divine silence even longer but for the arrival of a couple with a boom box and a little boy who pointed at us and shouted over the blaring hip hop, “What’s wrong with those people? Why they just sitting there?”
(Todd Walton’s website is UnderTheTableBooks.com.)