I’ve always been very interesting in both rock and roll and the 1960’s in general. Last year, I even wrote a 25-page research paper with the topic of “How did the Beatles evolve from pop music idols into social and political commentators in the 1960’s?”. The other day, I was in the car, and the song “Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel came on. In the song, silence is talked about as if it is a real, tangible thing that can be touched and affected. This got me thinking: what role does silence play in our lives?
From a literal standpoint, silence itself is virtually nowhere. There are very few natural places where there will be an absolute absence of sound. But obviously, there are times and places that allow us to come as close as possible to that silence. Silence allows for people to focus better, it can be soothing, but it can also be harmful in cases such as those involving mental patients. From a more positive point a view, Carolyn Gregoire of the Huffington Post gives several reasons as to why silence is good for the brain. She explains that silence allows for humans to relax and restore mental resources while relieving tension. She also cites environmental psychologist Craig Zimring on his 2004 paper that explains how unnecessary noises can have effects on a persons health as well, leading to higher blood pressure and an increase in heart rate. Lastly, Gregoire explains the concept of the default mode network, or the brain’s ability to tap into deep thought, meditation or even daydreaming. Accessing this network allows for humans to think analytically and creatively. Based on this article, we can assume that silence is very beneficial to the human brain when given the right amount of exposure.
But silence (or isolation) can be used as a weapon. Historically, isolation has been used against prisoners in hopes of reform, and even on prisoners of war by other countries governments. Michael Bond (2014) of BBC writes that in 1951, Donald O. Hebb of McGill University in Montreal decided he would use human patients to see what effect extreme isolation had on the human mind. For his experiment, he had college students spend extended periods of time in silent cubicles with no human interaction or stimulation of any kind. The effects began to take place after only a few hours, with students experiencing anxiety, high emotions, and even intense hallucinations. The study didn’t last longer than a week, and many students had to be taken out after just two days. Sample size in this experiment makes no real difference on outcome, as many other experiments like this have been done before. At the same time, we cannot rule out any confounding variables, as some patients may be more prone to anxiety or mental breakdowns that lead to detrimental effects.
This practice of isolation has in the past been installed for practical and seemingly ethical uses as well, such as with prisoners. Eastern State Penitentiary was built in 1821, and the prison advocated for complete isolation for each prisoner, giving them only a Bible and restricting any communication between prisoners. It wasn’t until 1933, David Kidd (2014) writes, that the penitentiary realized the harm in placing men in an environment with complete isolation and hopelessness. The penitentiary was closed down completely in 1970 because it was viewed as being unfit for human living.
Active studies are not being performed on this topic, and it is pretty clear that isolation has negative effects on the mind in cases including incarceration, whether genuine or mimicked. But, as college students (or non-incarcerated citizens in general), it can be concluded that silence is beneficial and an important part of every day life.