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Why Daily Silence Makes Students Smarter

Hear ye, hear ye! All educators, coaches, parents—and certainly students—need to ponder and digest the latest research on the topic of silence.

Silence can grow your brain.

I am not kidding. A 2013 study monitored the effect of “sound” versus “silence” on mice. What researchers discovered was profound. When exposed to two hours of silence every day, the mice developed new cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning. Their brains actually grew.

It is not a stretch to wonder whether our brains might benefit in the same way if we humans were not distracted by noise. When there is silence, our brains can let down their sensory guard, making room for a larger conscious workspace.

Could this be far fetched? I don’t think so.

In a more recent study on humans, neuroscientists discovered that when our brains experience times of silence, when there is margin in our daily calendar, they actually develop the capacity for empathy and creativity. MRI scans demonstrated how our brains benefit in these two areas from the reduction of noise and activity.

Consider the reverse reality. When our days are full of noise and clutter, we have little room to think of others or be creative. We merely attempt to survive our day. Our goal is maintenance—not mission.

Our Take Away

In our work with students, both we, and our young people, must become intentional about finding time for silence and space. Dee Hock once said, “Make an empty space in any corner of your mind, and creativity will instantly fill it.”

Jean Arp mourned about our modern day, “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 and meditation.”

I believe the noise we experience today has often made us:

  • Superficial.

There’s so much noise, we stick to the surface of most subjects.

  • Satisfied.

There’s so much noise, we become satisfied with being consumers.

  • Senseless.

There’s so much noise, we don’t reflect deeply, we merely emote.

Steps We Can Take with Our Students

Let me suggest some action steps to talk over with your students:

1. Decide what portions of your day you’ll turn off the noise.

We need silence like our bodies need food. William Penn said, “True silence is the rest of the mind and is to the spirit what sleep is to the body.” Humans are actually at our best when we enjoy the luxury of silence each day. So, when will you slate into the calendar “quiet time” for solitude and silence? Target at least an hour daily.

2. Reduce your time on social media.

Social media contains the language of hyperbole and the average teen spends the equivalent of a full-time job with it daily. Start by reducing time on your phone by one hour a day, and replace that time with silence for reflection, reading or writing. Eduardo Galeano said, “Less is always more. The best language is silence. We live in a time of terrible inflation of words, and it is worse than the inflation of money.”

3. Make your drive time quiet.

I began practicing this years ago and it’s a decision I’ve never regretted. My drive to work each day takes about 25 minutes. Instead of turning on talk radio or listening to music, I use that time to think and pray. It is priceless. It gives me space for planning and reflecting on conversations and preparing for the day ahead. With all due respect this sure beats the lyrics of Katy Perry or Kenye West.

4. Stop texting all the time and turn your phone off.

While I love the fact that our portable devices enable us to “stay in touch,” we have taken this too far, in my humble opinion. People do not need many of the texts we send and certainly don’t need to read a tweet about the pizza we just ate. Just speak less and text less—taking that time to listen and reflect . . . and watch your brain grow.

5. Fight boredom with a list of ideas to think about.

Some have told me they’re afraid of silence. They fear boredom. We must remember what Herman Melville once wrote, “All profound things are preceded and attended by silence.” So, I scribble a list of ideas or thoughts I can think about when I have silent time. I actually look forward to these times.

6. Take the ear buds out and plan time to think.

I actually have “think time” on my weekly calendar. I don’t always get it because of my travel schedule, but when I’m home, I love this time on Wednesdays. This margin enables me to collect my thoughts and play offense—not just defense—with my life. It’s like spending time with someone you love. Confucius said, “Silence is a true friend who never betrays.”

Silence is golden and will do our brains good. Let’s go for the gold.


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