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Long Reads

Why are we so scared of silence?

From listening to podcasts and audiobooks by day, to quietening our thoughts with white noise at night, we’re constantly buffering ourselves from silence. But why?

Because I love being so late to a party that it’s practically over, I’ve got really into podcasts recently.

And when I say I’m into them, I mean into them. I carry my phone around my flat with me, blaring tinny voices as I go. I listen while I cook, while I shower, while I wee. I have fallen into people’s laps on the tube more than once while I scrabble to untangle my headphones and plug myself in for all of a two-stop journey. I’m not always paying attention to them – I get distracted, I check social media at the same time, or I fail to hear what’s going on over the clamour of the train and voices around me.

But that’s fine, that isn’t the point. The point is, it’s better than silence.

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Before podcasts there was Netflix. An episode of Friends I’d seen 11,000 times, chirruping away in the background. And before Netflix, it was YouTube and DVD boxsets. Before that, kids, I had to make do with whatever was on TV.

Now, when I’m working and really need to focus, the podcasts go off but noise app Noisli goes on, to synthetically generate the rustle of a forest, the lapping of waves on a beach or the clink and chatter of a coffee shop. I have even listened to the coffee shop setting in a coffee shop, when it didn’t sound ‘coffee shoppy’ enough. I know. I know.

a beach in summer
“When I need to focus, I use an app to synthetically generate the rustle of a forest, the lapping of waves on a beach or the clink and chatter of a coffee shop”

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I became silence-intolerant. Probably around the same time you did. But as with so many of modern life’s more ominous habits, it’s only after sliding well and truly past the point of moderation that I’m finally getting around to wondering: why? Why do I think my brain needs to be stimulated at all times, like a petulant toddler? How did we get to a point where walking down the street without entertainment is just too boring?

“I avoid silence in the day like the plague,” admits my friend Ben, who always has TV, audiobooks or podcasts playing in the background. “That’s related to mental health issues, I think. I really don’t like to sit with my own thoughts.” 

In the midst of an ongoing loneliness epidemic, where more 18-34 year olds report feeling isolated than our counterparts over the age of 55, you can see how ‘comfort listening’ could act both as surrogate company and as a kind of cognitive buffer, protecting us from unpleasant thoughts or surroundings.

“I usually listen to podcasts or music, mostly because I love consuming things that are interesting and informative or entertaining,” says Becky Brynolf, co-host of storytelling podcast And Then What. “And to be honest the real world sounds grim by comparison, especially the city – it just makes me feel sad and angry. I think the only time I’ve given my ears a break when outdoors and on my own was doing the West Highland Way.”

lonely woman
We are in the midst of a loneliness epidemic

Even bedtime these days comes with a soundtrack. After asking around, I’m surprised by how many of my friends habitually fall asleep listening to podcasts, audiobooks or Radio 4 (five-hour compilations of the shipping forecast on YouTube are beloved by insomniacs). One who “can’t physically sleep without background noise” watches old episodes of QI – which, oddly, was my lullaby of choice too, all the way through uni. Other people use white noise tools like the Sleep Sounds app or Sleep by Headspace, or “slow lit” – purposely boring, monotone storytelling podcasts – like Drew Ackerman’s Sleep Like Me, which attracts more than 2.3 million monthly downloads. 

Noise machines for troubled sleepers are nothing new (we all remember Berger’s croaking frogs in that Sex and the City episode), but it seems the listening revolution is making us more choosy even when unconscious. Although, that said, a friend of a friend’s cousin reportedly sleeps with the hoover on.

Dr Joan Harvey, a chartered psychologist, tells me that comfort-listening can be about control and cushioning ourselves against intrusion. “Noise that is predictable is much less stressful,” she says. And preference for background noise vs quiet varies hugely from person to person. “Living in a noisy environment may mean total silence is not something you are used to, and therefore may struggle with.”

woman falling asleep
Millions of us sleep with white noise, noise machines or podcasts and audiobooks playing as background noise

In the introduction to his 2017 book Silence: In The Age of Noise, the Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge talks about trying to convince his teenage daughters of the power of silence. “The girls looked at me sceptically. Surely silence is… nothing? Even before I was able to explain the way in which silence can be a friend, and a luxury more valuable than any of the Louis Vuitton bags they so covet, their minds had been made up: silence is fine to have on hand when you’re feeling sad. Beyond that, it’s useless.” Hard relate.

Sometimes, I think silence isn’t so much an enemy as a boring, bog-standard default. It’s vanilla – and who wants vanilla when you could have the aural equivalent of triple chocolate fudge brownie with marshmallow swirls? In our privileged, hyper-stimulated, multiple choice world, we’re so used to upgrading life with bonus extras that settling for silence has begun to feel more unnatural than wearing earbuds in the swimming pool. 

But what’s the damage? A whole cacophony of studies from the past few decades have damned noise pollution – from Dr Arline Bronzaft’s 1970s research showing that urban noise stunted children’s educational development, to a 2013 study on mice that found silence helps create new cells in the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with learning, remembering, and emotions. Yet other research has found that white noise can have a positive effect, improving focus for people with ADHD or other types of neurodiversity. And when we’re constantly told that our failure to get a full eight hours’ sleep is giving us everything from bad skin to cancer, surely anything that helps us nod off at night is beneficial?

Notwithstanding the risk we’ll accidentally walk into traffic, perhaps this isn’t so much a question of health as it is happiness. Because while silence tends to form double acts with many of life’s more unpleasant aspects – awkward silence, loaded silence, “Hello darkness, my old friend” silence – it can also be golden. Blissful. And it’s long been practiced as a way of reaching a higher spiritual plain. 

woman on beach
Is it time to tune into your own thoughts?

Trappist monks live largely in silence to focus more fully on serving God. Meanwhile, modern meditation still values silence as a way of checking in with yourself. 

“I liken it to turning up the volume on our internal world, rather than the external world,” says mindfulness teacher Elizabeth Keates, who runs a variety of courses and retreats in London. “When we are in silence generally, and more specifically in meditation, this allows us the space to experience what is present for us in terms of bodily sensations, negative rumination, pleasant feelings, the full and varied range of our experiences – which are of course in constant flux. 

“Silence provides an environment for us to connect with our inner self and inner peace, which often reside below all the chaos.”

And while cramming podcasts and TV into any available gap in our day (I think of it as ‘brain Tetris’) might feel like a good way to maximise our potential, it turns out we could be better off letting our minds wander freely. Last month a new study by researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology found that daydreaming at work can actually help boost productivity and make us more creative.

Because of course, walking down the street sans podcast isn’t walking down the street in a void. You’re still listening, still stimulated by the million tiny, shifting details that add up to make the world around you. And while other people’s thoughts and feelings can be a fascinating diversion, it’s probably worth leaving time to tune in to your own. 

Images: Unsplash