A series of studies, chiefly from Oxford University, underline the benefits of silence not only at breakfast but at any time of day. Charles Spence, a psychologist/gastrophysicist at Oxford, says that if any meal should be eaten in silence, it is breakfast. While dinner is often a social activity, silent breakfasts help reduce ‘the sensory overload’ in ways similar to meditation. Studies show that our brains and bodies react to periods of silence as they do to meditation, with lowered stress hormones and breathing rates. This tends to increase levels of concentration and mental calm later. But silent breaks can be of benefit throughout the day.
‘In recent months people have begun to appreciate the appeal of silence in their lives’, said Dr Julie Darbyshire of Oxford’s SILENCE project, which looked at the effects of quiet on hospital patients. ‘There are potentially massive health gains from everyone having a bit of quiet time.’ Hospital wards are often noisy places, with slamming doors, (medical) alarms and noise from other patients and staff creating decibel levels of 85 plus, like a busy restaurant, [even before extra noise in the form of piped music or television] is introduced. ‘Noise is a distraction and stressor and a quiet, calm environment is definitely better for patients and staff in hospitals’, Darbyshire said. ‘We found that patients were in a chronic state of alertness when hospital alarms were constantly sounding… Complete silence has a calming effect.’
Quietness has more general benefits. Retreating into quiet for two hours a day can boost cognitive ability by triggering the creation of new cells in the hippocampus, the region of the brain linked to learning and memory. Listening to classical music [when freely chosen] can help lower heart rates and blood pressure. Cardiologists have also discovered that a two-minute silence between each piece has a ‘dramatic effect on relieving tension in the body and mind.’
Silence can even help you lose weight. Scientists at Brigham Young University, Colorado, have found that being able to hear the sounds you make when eating – all that chewing and chomping! -– means consuming fewer calories. One trial showed that those listening to loud music ate on average four pretzels while those eating in silence consumed only 2.75 pretzels. Professor Jeff Brunstrom at Bristol University has discovered that people distracted by noise at one meal tend to eat more at the next.