Right to Quiet Society Noiseletter
Fall 2014, page 4

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...continued from page 3

could find a therapeutic use for silence.

While it’s clear that external silence can have tangible benefits, scientists are discovering that under the hoods of our skulls "there isn’t really such a thing as silence," says Robert zatorre, an expert on the neurology of sound. "In the absence of sound, the brain often tends to produce internal representations of sound." Imagine, for example, you’re listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s "The Sound of Silence," when the radio abruptly cuts out. Neurologists have found that if you know the song well, your brain’s auditory cortex remains active, as if the music is still playing. "What you’re ‘hearing’ is not being generated by the outside world," says David Kraemer, who’s conducted these types of experiments in his Dartmouth College laboratory. "You’re retrieving a memory." Sounds aren’t always responsible for sensations— sometimes our subjective sensations are responsible for the illusion of sound.

This is a reminder of the brain’s imaginative power: on the blank sensory slate of silence, the mind can conduct its own symphonies. But it’s also a reminder that even in the absence of a sensory input like sound, the brain remains active and dynamic. In 1997, a team of neuroscientists at Washington University was collecting brain scan data from test subjects during various mental tasks, like arithmetic and word games. One of the scientists, Gordon Shulman, noticed that although intense cognition caused spikes in some parts of the brain, as you’d expect, it was also causing declines in the activity of other parts of the brain. There seemed to be a type of background brain activity that was most visible, para­doxically, when the test subject was in a quiet room, doing absolutely nothing.

The team’s lead scientist was Marcus Raichle, and he knew there were good reasons to look closer at the data. For decades, scientists had known that the brain’s "background" activity consumed the lion’s share of its energy. Difficult tasks like pattern recognition or arithmetic, in fact, only increased the brain’s energy consumption by a few percent. This suggested that by ignoring the background activity, neurologists might be overlooking something crucial. "When you do that," Raichle explains, "most of the brain’s activities end up on the cutting room floor." To his great surprise, he found that two hours of silence per day prompted cell development in the hippocampus region of the brain.

In 2001, Raichle and his colleagues published a seminal paper that defined a "default mode" of brain function—situated in the prefrontal cortex, active in cognitive actions - implying a "resting" brain is perpetually active, gathering and evaluating information. Focussed attention, in fact, curtails this scanning activity. The default mode, Raichle and company argued, has "rather obvious evolutionary significance." Detecting predators, for example, should happen automatically, and not require additional intention and energy.

Follow­ up research has shown the default mode is also enlisted in self­reflection. In 2013, in Frontiers in Human Neuro-science, Joseph Moran and colleagues wrote the brain’s default mode network "is observed most closely during the psychological task of reflecting on one’s personalities and characteristics (self­reflection), rather than during self­recog­nition, thinking of the self­concept, or thinking about self­esteem, for example." During this time when the brain rests quietly, wrote Moran and colleagues, our brains integrate external and internal information into "a conscious workspace."

Freedom from noise and goal­directed tasks, it appears, unites the quiet without and within, allowing our conscious workspace to do its thing, to weave ourselves into the world, to discover where we fit in. That’s the power of silence. Noora Vikman, an ethnomusicologist, and a consultant on silence for Finland’s marketers, knows that power well. She lives in the eastern part of Finland, an area blanketed with quiet lakes and forests. In a remote and quiet place, Vikman says, she discovers thoughts and feelings that aren’t audible in her busy daily life. "If you want to know yourself you have to be with yourself, and discuss with yourself, be able to talk with yourself."

"Silence, Please" has proven to be the most popular theme in Finland’s rebranding, and one of the most popular pages on VisitFinland.com. Maybe silence sells because, so often, we treat it as a tangible thing—something easily broken, like porcelain or crystal, and something delicate and valuable. Vikman remembers a time when she experienced the rarity of nearly complete silence. 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 the smallest sounds. And then you don’t want to do it. You try to be as quiet as you can be."

Daniel A. Gross is a freelance journalist and public radio producer who writes about history and science.

Mighty mine disaster

By Rod Marining

On BC Day, a holiday meant to celebrate beautiful British Columbia, we were all having a beautiful time at the fami­ly cabin at Quesnel Lake. That night, I slept on my boat docked in front of the cabin and was awakened at 3 AM by a continuous roar ­ like a 747 jet was flying towards the town of Likely. I knew that Polley Mine was only a few

miles away, but I just returned to bed puzzled by the strange, distant noise. We were unaware that the tailing pond had burst and sent a torrent of 10 billion litres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of toxic silt into Ques­nel Lake.

Excerpted from "The Mount Polley mine disaster"

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