Justin Zorn is a writer and policymaker, who has served as both a strategist and a meditation teacher in the U.S. Congress. Leigh Marz is a collaboration consultant specializing in work with scientists and engineers, as well as a longtime student of the ritualized use of psychedelic medicines in the Western World.
Below, Justin and Leigh share 5 key insights from her new book, Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise. Listen to the audio version—read by Justin and Leigh themselves—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Silence isn’t just the absence of noise.
What’s the deepest silence you’ve ever known? What did it feel like in your mind and body? We’ve posed this question to neuroscientists, activists, poets, executives, politicians, a man on death row, a Grammy-winning opera singer, a heavy metal front man, and dozens of others.
For some, the question evokes memories—like the balmy air at sunrise over a vast ocean, or a remote cabin in snowy woods. While for others, experiences come to mind that aren’t necessarily auditorily quiet: births, deaths, moments of awe. Moments such as running the perfect line through roaring rapids or finding total flow at the 4 am mark of an all-night dance party.
The common denominator to these diverse varieties of silence is the experience of pristine attention, the space where no person or thing is making claims on our consciousness. Profound silence is presence beyond external distraction and internal chatter. It’s a presence that brings clarity, connection, energy, and inspiration. We’ve found silence to be a vital and necessary starting point for solving complex and seemingly intractable problems.
2. The world is noisier than ever—in our ears, on our screens, and in our heads.
People have always complained about the loudness of life. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the deities grew so tired of the noise of humanity that they sent a great flood to wipe us all out. But it’s an empirical fact: the world is louder than ever. Because emergency vehicles have to be loud enough to break through their immediate soundscape, the volume of their sirens serve as a good proxy for the loudness of our environments. A comparison of fire engine sirens from 1912 to the present shows that sirens are nearly six times louder today, just to pierce through the din.
“The average person spends one full hour per day working to get back on track after interruptions from phones or social media.”
A range of peer-reviewed studies, over the past decades, have shown that auditory noise has a serious impact on cognition (especially among children) and contributes to health risks including cardiovascular disease, stroke, and depression. Of course, it’s not just about the noise in our ears—it’s the noise on our screens and in our heads. Researchers have found that most people switch between different online content every 19 seconds, and the average person spends one full hour per day working to get back on track after interruptions from phones or social media.
Then there is internal dialogue. Negative self-talk, like rumination about the past and worry for the future, can be merciless, even debilitating. Modern, internal dialogue is not just high volume, but high velocity. As the University of Michigan’s Ethan Kross puts it, “The voice in your head is a very fast talker.” Based on findings that inner speech is condensed to a rate of about four thousand words per minute (ten times the speed of expressed speech) Kross estimates that most of us listen to roughly 320 State of the Union addresses’-worth of inner monologue daily.
Noise is unwanted distraction—be it auditory, informational, or internal. It interferes with our ability to make sense of the world and discern what we truly want.
3. Noise is our society’s most celebrated addiction.
Modern society is optimized for the maximum production of mental stuff. Think, for example, of how we measure progress and productivity. We often use Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to measure the success of a government or the health of an economy. But GDP goes up with the buzzes and roars of industrial machinery. Speaking just a few months before his assassination in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy said the following:
[GDP] counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.
“Moments of pristine attention—like deep immersion in nature, art, or play with our children—don’t register any value, according to GDP. They’re implicitly labeled useless. Yet, these moments often contribute most to fulfillment and well-being.”
Today, it also counts when an app’s built-in algorithm deduces that you’re in a quiet moment of your day and swoops in with a notification, boosting usage statistics and juicing company earnings. GDP goes up when management finds a new opportunity to make an employee answer emails at 11 o’clock at night, transforming the “unproductive” activity of rest into a verifiable contribution to the monetary economy. It’s probably no coincidence that Facebook created the “Like” button—one of history’s craftiest means of hijacking dopamine receptors—as the company was demonstrating its potential profitability to investors in order to go public.
Moments of pristine attention—like deep immersion in nature, art, or play with our children—don’t register any value, according to GDP. They’re implicitly labeled useless. Yet, these moments often contribute most to fulfillment and well-being.
4. To get beyond noise, look beyond the typical rules and tools of mindfulness.
We came across a book from the early 90s called We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—and the World’s Getting Worse. You could say something similar today: We’ve had forty years of mindfulness—and the world is more distracted than ever. We both have tremendous respect for mindfulness, as it has helped us in our professional and personal lives. But the challenge is that meditation isn’t for everyone.
Leigh recently met Zana, a fellow parent on her daughter’s volleyball team. They hit it off instantly. Zana had recently made partner at a big San Francisco–based law firm. She was working up to seventy hours a week, with a daunting commute, while raising two daughters on her own. Somehow, she seldom missed a game. Upon hearing that Leigh was writing a book about silence, Zana launched into a self-berating tirade about not having a meditation practice. “I totally need to meditate! I’ve been meaning to forever. I don’t know why I don’t!” This sort of shame spiral is common, but it doesn’t have to be.
“Each of us—in our own way—knows what silence feels like. It’s inherent to being human.”
Any one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to be an enduring solution to the complex challenge of staying centered amidst the destabilizing winds of today’s mental hyper-stimulation. One answer is simplifying the approach: notice noise, then tune in to silence.
Each of us—in our own way—knows what silence feels like. It’s inherent to being human. In Golden, we explore practical ideas for how to find silence in everyday moments, as well as the occasional profound experience. It’s important to navigate noise and savor silence as families, friends, and workplaces, too, because the power of silence is magnified when it’s shared.
5. The simple act of listening to silence can regenerate our brains.
Researchers at Duke University Medical School tested the effects of different sounds on the brains of mice. It was silence—more than classical music, white noise, and mice pup sounds—that stimulated growth of neurons in the hippocampus, the region of the brain most associated with memory. The researchers described a core finding: “trying to hear in silence” activates the brain and promotes neural development.
Pythagoras, the great Greek philosopher and forerunner of modern geometry, emphasized this notion millennia ago: “Let your quiet mind listen and absorb the silence,” he advised his students. We can apply this simple idea—validated through modern medicine and ancient wisdom—to our lives here and now.
Take time to listen to the birds, breeze, or nothing in particular. Listen to the empty spaces between words in a conversation or between songs. Integrate simple moments of silent attention between tasks. Honor moments of silence in meetings or at home, when generating ideas, and before making important decisions. Imagine what it would mean to remake social and economic systems in line with this idea. Do what you can to promote cultural shifts and public policies to mitigate noise. We can build a society that honors silence, and we’ll all be better for it.
To listen to the audio version read by co-authors Justin Zorn and Leigh Marz, download the Next Big Idea App today: