The Sound of Silence
Imagine a quiet room. So quiet you can hear the silence. But can you really “hear” silence?
Philosophers have been puzzled by this question for centuries, and now, a team of psychologists and philosophers at Johns Hopkins University seem to have found an answer.
They suggest that silence is something we can perceive with our ears.
“We typically think of our sense of hearing as being concerned with sounds. But silence, whatever it is, is not a sound—it’s the absence of sound,” said lead author Rui Zhe Goh.
“Surprisingly, what our work suggests is that ‘nothing’ is also something you can hear.”
The Illusion of Silence
The researchers used auditory illusions to prove their point. You know how sometimes you look at something, and it seems to move or change shape, but it’s just your mind playing tricks on you? That’s a visual illusion.
There are also auditory illusions, where something similar happens with sounds.
The team adapted these auditory illusions, swapping sounds for moments of silence. They found that these silence-based illusions worked exactly the same way as their sound-based counterparts.
This suggests that we perceive silence in the same way we perceive sounds.
The One-Silence-Is-More Illusion
One of these illusions is called the one-is-more illusion. If you hear a long beep, it seems longer than two short consecutive beeps, even if the two sequences are equally long.
When the team swapped the beeps in this illusion with moments of silence, they found the same results. People thought one long moment of silence was longer than two short moments of silence.
Hearing the Unheard
The researchers also used soundscapes that mimicked the hustle and bustle of restaurants, markets, and train stations.
Then, they abruptly stopped all sounds, creating brief silences. These silences triggered the same auditory illusions that sounds do.
“There’s at least one thing that we hear that isn’t a sound, and that’s the silence that happens when sounds go away,” said co-author Ian Phillips.
“The kinds of illusions and effects that look like they are unique to the auditory processing of a sound, we also get them with silences, suggesting we really do hear absences of sound too.”
The team plans to continue exploring this topic. They want to find out if we can hear silences that are not preceded by sound.
They also want to investigate whether we can perceive other things as being absent, like visual disappearances.
Their findings open up a new way to study how we perceive the absence of something. So, next time you’re in a quiet room, listen closely. You might just hear the sound of silence.
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The study was published in PNAS.
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