Well-Being//

In a Loud And Distracting World, Stillness Is Vital For Our Brains

The essential discipline of stillness

By Jacob Lund/Shutterstock
By Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

In an increasingly distracting world, we can easily forget to lose ourselves in moments of stillness — those periods of calm that allow us to self-reflect — providing perspective on where we are headed, why we’ve chosen that path, what we can do better and how to make the journey meaningful.

Dozens of studies are showing that silence is much more important to our brains than we think — Science is now showing that stillness may be just what we need to regenerate our exhausted brains and bodies.

For many people, it’s incredibly difficult to disconnect or make time down real downtime. The first thing they do when faced with a moment of stillness is to reach for their smartphones.

Stillness is tremendously difficult in our media-rich, always-on, over-communicated society. We’re constantly filling our brains with news, work updates, music, podcasts and, of course, non-stop TV shows.

Think about it: How many moments each day do you spend in total silence? The answer is probably very few. The art of stillness is becoming a lost art in our hyperconnected world.

“ We’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off — our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk,” writes Pico Iyer in The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere.

Stillness is rare and fleeting in our busy lives. Too many of us see downtime or planning stillness as turning away from something rather than turning towards something meaningful and fulfilling.

Stillness or self-reflection outside our busy schedules has been around for centuries. “All the unhappiness of men,” the seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously noted, “arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.”

As our internal and external environments become louder and louder, we need to deliberately seek out moments of silence from the the noise — information overload, constant stimulation, and the hurried life.

“Researchers in the new field of interruption science have found that it takes an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from a phone call. Yet such interruptions come every eleven minutes — which means we’re never caught up with our lives,” notes Iyer.

The demands of modern life put a significant burden on the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is involved in high-order thinking, decision-making and problem-solving.

When our attentional resources become drained, become distracted, mentally fatigued, struggle to focus and solve problems.

A structured downtime can help you do your best work. Studies have shown that workers are most focused and productive when following the rhythm of a work/rest ratio.

The brain depends on downtime to process information, consolidate memory and reinforce learning

The brain is actively internalizing and evaluating information during silence. A study by Duke University regenerative biologist, Imke Kirste, found that two hours of silence per day prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the brain region related to the formation of memory, involving the senses.

Just as too much noise can cause stress and tension, silence has the opposite effect, releasing tension in the brain and body. The brain can restore its finite cognitive resources when we’re in environments with lower levels of sensory input than usual.

A recent study on the importance of silence found two minutes of silence to be more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music, based on changes in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.

Stillness is best facilitated in nature — away from the dings, vibrations, and red flags popping up on the screen. Moments of silence are out there —away from our desks. We just have to make time for them.

To those suffering from the dissatisfaction of modern life, professor John Stilgoe has simple advice: “Get out now. Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, look around. Do not jog. Do not run … Instead pay attention to everything that abuts the rural road, the city street, the suburban boulevard. Walk. Stroll. Saunter. Ride a bike and coast along a lot. Explore.”

Don’t let the beauty of life escape you. In silence, you can tap into the brain’s default mode network — just letting your minds wander. Scientists refer to it as “self-generated cognition.

When your brain is idle, you can tap into your inner stream of thoughts, emotions, memories and ideas. Give your brain the opportunity to understand your internal and external environments — to gain perspective: something that is vital for your overall wellbeing.

Busyness can be counterproductive. Spending time unplugged, disconnected, and in silence can improve your focus, productivity, and creativity. For peak performance, completely clear your mind and begin again.

Originally published on Medium.

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