What Would Happen if We All Just Shut Up?

The psychological impact of being quiet.

by James Borrowdale; illustrated by Ben Thomson
28 March 2018, 1:24am

This article is presented in partnership with The Quiet Place. It originally appeared on VICE New Zealand

You pull the lid closed, turn the lights out, and wait for the tinkling music to stop. And then, silence. The audible world is not, of course, the only thing that disappears as you settle into a sensory deprivation tank—the water is the temperature of your body so you forget where the edge of yourself is, and you float supine in the pitch-black, saline-induced womblike void—but the silence struck me the most profoundly. After all, we nightly go some of the way towards reproducing those other conditions, but actual absolute silence—no insects, no distant traffic, not even the soft rhythm of your partner’s unconsciousness—is much rarer.

I live in a house surrounded by bush and I work from home, so almost everything I do is accompanied—usually entirely unnoticed—by a constant under-layer of birdsong. As I lay there, in the silence, that noise returned. Maybe it was a kind of hallucination, or maybe it was the auditory equivalent of that thing that happens when you spend all day doing some menial task—picking apples, say—and then, when you close your eyes that night, apples in their hundreds crowd the mind’s eye. I lay there listening; my mind wandered, narrated by my interior voice: how weird, my next thought ran, that that interior voice “sounds” like my speaking voice. And then: is this even noise? What is noise again? And if it isn’t, why can I hear it? Can I “hear” it? What even is hearing?

"The mind can kind of go berserk… You start to actually see things that are not there and hear things that are not there."

Just about every thought, as they looped into and around each other, from that point forward can only be (poorly) expressed with quotation marks around every second word, italics for every third. Auckland University’s Emeritus Professor of Psychology Michael Corballis told me a couple of days later that such “wild interior happenings” could be expected when the senses are deprived of input. “One of the things [that would happen] if we didn’t speak, we’d lose one avenue of sensory stimulation. And if you take sensory stimulation away, well then the mind can kind of go berserk… You start to actually see things that are not there and hear things that are not there. And that happens quite quickly.” Dreaming, he said, was the common example: without the stimulus of consciousness, the brain does its own weird thing.

After my 80 or so minutes of enforced silence, I wanted to know what effect a longer spell would have on my mind—and what if everyone did the same? A portion of Corballis’ research focuses on the theory that oral language evolved, not from animal calls, but from manual gesture. We first learned to communicate with our hands, the theory goes, and the oral component came later. Silence would force us to resort back to something resembling sign language. And sign language, Corballis says, contains the same properties—syntax and semantics—as its spoken equivalent: “All of the characteristics we normally attribute to language are true of sign language. Now, as far as we know, there’s not much difference in brain structure either. So the left side of the brain handles sign language in much the same way that it handles spoken language.”

We first learned to communicate with our hands, the theory goes, and the oral component came later.

In deaf people, he says, there is some evidence of a “sensory rearrangement”, in which the auditory side of the brain is commandeered by the visual. Sign language also sticks more closely to the literal: it visually describes its subject in a way that spoken language doesn’t. “There’s much more visual information about what you’re signing about, if you use sign language. I mean, you can sometimes tell what people are trying to communicate. That’s much more difficult, of course, with speech, unless you happen to know what the words mean. Just what a word sounds like doesn’t tell you much about what you are talking about.”

Angelà Malin runs the Balanced Living Centre from her home in Auckland’s leafy suburb of Titirangi. She spoke very quietly as we chatted over cups of Earl Grey tea. She finds the volume of modern life needs the corrective of periods of quietude, something she discovered as she got further into meditation. “As I became more familiar with silence, I started to love it. It’s a bit like if you go into a beautiful place, like a forest or something like that, or a place that you really feel drawn to. And rather than doing things, you just are still and sort of listen to what’s around you. There’s a lovely depth of experience to that.”

She runs silence retreats as part of her practice. People, she says, find the experience of silence “joyful”. “It might sound surprising. Joyful is different to excitement. It’s just a sense of contentment in a way. Just being with themselves, being able to be in their own thoughts, their own energy. Listening to themselves.”

A silence retreat, she says, allows you to organise which of those thoughts come from within yourself, and which are merely reactions to outside stimulus. At the end of a retreat, people speak far more quietly, she says, and have refocused on their surroundings. “Often at the end of retreats you will feel more aware. You’ll start to notice the world around you, the natural world, or your own thoughts more. You become more sensitive and aware of yourself and what’s happening around you in the moment rather than thinking about the past or the future or your worries. It just helps everything come more into the moment really.”

Anton Kuznetsov, who owns Float Culture, where I deprived my own senses, says people have told him that sensory deprivation tanks recreated the feeling of a silence retreat. “We’ve had a few clients who went to Vipassana meditation—when you’re in the retreat for five or so days and you don’t talk—and then they came for a float and said they felt the same way after the float as they did after the whole week of the retreat.”

Perhaps that increased efficiency is because of the totality of senses—and not just the aural—you are forced to forego. With no context but my own mind, and its interior happenings, when the light came on to warn me my time was coming to an end, I was sure a mistake had been made—that only 20 minutes or so had passed. But no, the music, almost imperceptibly at first, began to tinkle. I got out and showered, and walked outside, head cleared and happier than I had been in weeks, but also very much shouldered with that feeling of emerging from a club you’ve been partying in all night, only to find the sun up and the uncaring world going relentlessly about its business.

The Quiet Place is in cinemas from April 5.

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This article originally appeared on VICE NZ.