In a world that’s chronically overstimulated, silence can be a source of inspiration and renewal
At Freedom we’ve been preaching the benefits of turning down the noise for over a decade now. Sometimes we worry that we talk about it so much that we’re contributing to even more noise! Other times we wonder if our words are just getting lost out there amongst all the content flying around. If you’re reading this now, chances are that you agree with us though – that spreading the word about the importance of peace and quiet is one thing that really deserves to be shouted about.
So our ears certainly perked up when we heard about a new book on the power of silence, written by Justin Zorn –a meditation teacher and Oxford-trained specialist in the economics and psychology of well-being– and Leigh Marz – a collaboration consultant and leadership coach, and a longtime student of pioneering researchers and practitioners of the ritualized use of psychedelic medicines in the West. In Golden, The Power of Silence in a World of Noise, Marz and Zorn combine their knowledge and draw on lessons from neuroscience, business, spirituality, politics, and the arts to explore why auditory, informational, and internal silence is essential for physical health, mental clarity, ecological sustainability, and vibrant community.
Golden reveals how to go beyond the ordinary rules and tools of mindfulness. It’s a field guide for navigating the noise of the modern world—not just the noise in our ears but also on our screens and in our heads. With vital lessons for individuals, families, workplaces, and whole societies, it is an engaging and unexpected rethinking of the meaning of quiet. We were delighted to have the chance to interview the authors to learn more about their work, and how they believe we can repair our world by reclaiming the presence of silence in our lives.
What first inspired you to write Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise?
Back in early 2017, we were pretty despondent about the state of the world.
You probably know the feeling.
It was before COVID, the war in Ukraine, and so many other crises that define these times. But, even then, we just couldn’t see a way forward. It was like there was something blocking the capacity for deep conversation about difficult topics and blocking our ability to find creative solutions. As parents of younger kids and as people who have been active in struggles on climate, poverty, mental health, and domestic violence, we felt at a loss for what to do.
Around that time, we both started feeling an intuition about the first step toward finding a way forward:
Tune in to silence. Get beyond the noise and distraction. Simply listen.
We were both what you could call ‘lapsed meditators,’ but this wasn’t a calling to get back to mindfulness practice. It was something that felt simpler but also somehow bigger.
It was the idea that the problems facing humanity might not be solved with more thinking or talking.
We wrote an article for Harvard Business Review about this idea, and it ended up resonating with a lot of people, becoming one of their most viewed articles in recent years.
So, we followed the cookie crumbs and started interviewing an unusual mix of people—neuroscientists, activists, poets, executives, national politicians, a man incarcerated on death row, a Grammy-winning opera singer, a heavy metal frontman, a cowboy-lumberjack, and an air force lieutenant colonel.
We asked these people: What’s the deepest silence you’ve ever known?
And—through their stories and insights—we’ve written a book about the question of why silence matters for our personal and collective wellbeing and how to find it in our noisy world.
Is the world really getting louder?
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 the surrounding 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 now nearly six times louder—out of necessity—to pierce through the din.
A range of peer-reviewed studies over the past decades has shown that auditory noise has a serious impact on cognition—especially among children—and also 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 that the average person spends one full hour per day every day working to get back on track after dealing with interruptions from phones or social media.
Then there’s internal dialogue. Negative self-talk, like rumination about the past and worry for the future, can be merciless, even debilitating. Modern, internal dialogue is proving to be 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 in modern times have to listen to something like 320 State of the Union addresses’ worth of inner monologue on any given day.
What are some of the problems caused by living in an increasingly noisy world?
Mathias Basner, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in sound processing and rest, explains that:
“noises cause stress, especially if we have little or no control over them.” He says: “The body will excrete stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that lead to changes in the composition of our blood—and of our blood vessels, which actually have been shown to be stiffer after a single night of noise exposure.”
In 1859, reflecting on her experiences with patients in a hospital during the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale wrote:
“Unnecessary noise, then, is the most cruel absence of care which can be inflicted either on sick or well.”
Modern research demonstrates that she had an essential point.
For years, the concern has been that excessive noise can cause hearing loss—a grave issue that can also lead to social isolation and loneliness. But a broad set of peer-reviewed papers over the past few decades have shown risks that include cardiovascular disease, stroke, and depression, as well as the diverse complications that happen downstream of any of these.
There’s also growing recognition of physiological consequences of informational and internal noise.
Steve Cole, a professor of medicine at UCLA, has found that the sense of chronic threat that often comes with hyperactive internal dialogue results in the overexpression of inflammation genes. As he points out, this can also mean a decrease in expression of the cells that are needed to defend against viruses. Kross describes the research this way:
“When our internal conversations activate our threat system frequently over time, they send messages to our cells that trigger the expression of inflammation genes, which are meant to protect us in the short term but cause harm in the long term.”
As the University of Michigan’s Ethan Kross says, “Genes are like keys on a piano.” When we get caught up in ruminative chatter, we hit discordant notes.
Are there ways of measuring the impact of noise?
We think of “noise” as that which keeps us from connecting to what’s important in our lives.
In our book, we talk about three levels of noise: auditory, informational, and internal. And there’s a common element to these three kinds of noise—in our ears, on our screens, and in our heads—that makes them distinct from what we might otherwise call sound, data, or thought.
Noise is, in just two words, unwanted distraction. It’s what interferes with our ability to make sense of the world and to discern what it is that we truly want.
The neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and the psychologist Larry Rosen have a valuable way of defining what’s happening when we encounter noise. They call it “goal interference.” It’s when you find focused attention, even to simple tasks, to be impossible due to nonstop banter in your open-plan office. It’s when the jingle of a Twitter notification commandeers your attention just as a friend is sharing some difficult personal news. It’s when we “replay” an unresolved conflict during a priceless moment, like while watching your daughter in her first school play. These are individual, momentary experiences of auditory, informational, or internal noise. But, taken together, they amount to more than a nuisance. Their cumulative impact can determine the quality of our consciousness, how we think and feel. All the noise can interfere with what might be our biggest goal of all: to consciously choose how we spend our time on this planet.
We know that the word “goal” might imply a focus on productivity. But what we mean here is “goal” in the big sense—not just completing to-do lists and résumé-builders—but reaching a long-range destination by the position of the North Star.
What does it mean to live your life in line with what you value and what you believe to be true? What’s interfering with your ability to focus on doing so?
This kind of clarity is rare these days. Our societies are structured around the maximum possible production of mental stuff.
But silence is still available. It just takes some effort to find it.
What is meant by digital noise and why is it so problematic?
We consider digital noise to be under that broader banner of informational noise.
In 2010, Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, made a striking estimate: Every two days, we now create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. While he was mostly musing about the exponential growth of online content, he hit on a fundamental fact about the trajectory of human history: There is more and more mental stuff, competing for your attention.
With so much stimulus consuming our attention, it’s harder to find silence inside our consciousness. All the noise outside can amplify the intensity of what’s going on inside of us. With the increased frequency of incoming emails, texts, instant messages, and social media notifications comes an increased expectation of being always-on—ready to read, react, and respond. This noise makes claims on our consciousness. It colonizes pristine attention. It makes it harder to focus on what’s in front of us, to manage our mind’s impulses, to notice, to appreciate, and to preserve open space—the space of silence.
All the noise threatens our health, our happiness, and our ability to lead lives aligned with genuine purpose.
The noise keeps growing because our societies these days are structured around the maximum possible 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. It goes up when an app’s built-in algorithm deduces that you’re in a quiet moment of your day and swoops in with a notification that wins your attention, boosting usage statistics and juicing company earnings. GDP goes up when management finds a new opportunity to make an employee answer emails at 11:00 pm, 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 and with it, human consciousness—as the company was seeking to demonstrate its potential profitability to investors in order to go public.
You could say that noise is “our most celebrated addiction.”
And this is a real problem. The French philosopher Simone Weil says:
“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”
The full plenitude of our conscious attention is something sacred. And yet, it’s hard to assign a monetary value to anything that’s sacred—whether it’s a vibrant virgin rainforest or an experience of gratitude in quiet reflection. Silence gets implicitly priced at zero. The empty space beneath, between, or beyond the mental stuff gets tacitly labeled “useless.” That’s why the world keeps getting noisier.
How can we find a balance between silence in our lives and the need to be connected?
There’s no question the growing amount of information in the world brings many blessings. We’re grateful for digital contact with faraway loved ones, remote learning and work opportunities, streaming movies, and all the other bounty that the Internet and ubiquitous connectivity bestow upon humanity.
But we have to remember this: the data is increasing, but our ability to process it is not.
Fifty years ago, the scholar Herbert Simon put it plainly:
“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
In our book, we use the term “silence” as a way of describing the state where “nothing is making claims on our consciousness.” It’s the state of pristine attention.
So, to consider your balance of connectedness and clarity, contemplate some simple questions:
What has my attention right now?
How is the quality of my attention?
What can I do to come closer to a state of pristine focus that’s aligned with my real intention?
One more thing that’s worth mentioning on the topic of balancing being “connected” and seeking silence: a common misconception about silence is that it only happens in solitude. In our view, silence is in no way at odds with being connected to others. In our interviews, and in our first-hand experience, we found that the power of silence is magnified when it’s shared. We can build our appreciation and capacity for silence as individuals as well as friends, family members, co-workers, and society as a whole.
What are some first steps you would recommend to someone who feels their life is overwhelmed by noise?
In the book, we offer a recommendation:
Notice noise. Tune in to silence.
There are three basic steps to the process:
1. Pay attention to the diverse forms of auditory, informational, and internal interference that arise in your life. Study how to navigate them.
2. Perceive the small pockets of peace that live amidst all the sounds and stimuli. Seek these spaces. Savor them. Go as deeply into the silence as you possibly can, even when it’s only present for a few seconds.
3. Cultivate spaces of profound silence—even rapturous silence—from time to time.
Is there a relationship between silence and productivity?
Silence—in the sense of transcending the auditory, informational, and internal noise—is essential for getting beyond the fight-or-flight mode and entering a state where it’s possible to tune into intuition and truly generative creative thinking. All this has profound implications for our productivity. But what we mean here is “productivity” in the big sense—not just completing to-do lists and résumé builders—but reaching a long-range destination by the position of the North Star.
We seek to keep our focus in the book on these bigger questions: What do you really want? What does it mean to live your life in line with what you value and what you believe to be true? What’s interfering with your ability to focus on doing so? Understanding and realizing our goals, in this sense, requires the reduction of noise.
It starts with the ordinary day-to-day work of managing the noise. We can think of this as “turning down the dial” of interior and exterior sound and stimuli in our lives. But, as we see through the course of the book, this kind of clarity also requires time and space for cultivating immersive silence.
What does silence mean to you personally and what are some of your favorite ways to experience it?
Leigh: Finding external and internal silence is one of my primary means of attuning to what is most worthy of my attention. Silence helps me determine how to best fulfill my reason for being here—which is to honor and celebrate life.
I have three favorite routes to finding silence. 1. In nature. 2. Teaching dance 3. Through the wise use of mind-expanding medicines in a ritualized space.
In nature, the auditory inputs are welcome—the song of birds, the wind in tall grasses. My internal noise tends to quiet to a trickle as I feel connected to the world around me.
On the dance floor, the music is loud and joyful, and motivating. In a state of flow, my internal silence is pristine. All of my attention is required to teach—in real-time—to a room full of dancers. There’s no attention left for self-referential thought or noisy thoughts of “me.”
In my medicine circles, the music and silences are often curated and beautifully juxtaposed. Whatever my internal state is to begin with–it is magnified by the medicine–eventually, through rigorous practice, I’m able to discern the signal (that which is worthy of my attention) from the noise (that which is a distraction).
Justin: I’m in a very full moment of life, with two-year-old twins and a six-year-old at home, and a full slate of community and professional commitments. So I look for silence wherever I can get it. Often this is taking a 2-minute break to stand by the juniper tree in my backyard, connecting to the rays of the sun and listening to the breezes in the branches. Often, it’s in the moments of pristine attention, being fully immersed in deep work without distraction or even immersed in jumping on the trampoline with the little ones. I’ve come to regard these as “golden” states of consciousness.
Many people use ambient noise while they work, or to help them fall asleep. What are your thoughts on this?
Silence is idiosyncratic. Different people find silence in different ways. While scientific research demonstrates that true silence is beneficial to the brain and nervous system, there can be a real benefit in ambient noise if it blocks out external distractions.
We recently interviewed Elissa Bassist about how her experience of being scared to speak out negatively impacted her health. Going forwards, how can we ensure that the right voices are amplified among the noise?
This kind of “silence” that she describes—the refusal to speak and act in the face of injustice—is real. And we oppose it to the core of our beings.
Yet, in the journey to writing the book, we’ve come to an understanding that the “silence” of closed-lipped complacency is not silence in the truest sense. That’s because the refusal to perceive and address abuses is the polar opposite of clear perception and intention.
When our eyes and hearts are open we can’t be ignorantly satisfied to look elsewhere. The silence of apathy is a function of fear. It’s a distortion of perception and intention that’s born of anxious clinging to one’s narrowest self-interest.
So, how can we ensure that the right voices are amplified among the noise? It’s a tremendous question, and we don’t have a perfect answer. But, as one step, we believe it’s important to elevate the value of pristine attention in our culture.
Consider how a noisy world enables injustice. If we’re caught up in thinking about Instagram likes, reality TV stars, and socially unproductive profit-seeking, how can we deeply understand inequities and concentrate on addressing them? If we’re fixated on our own inner chatter, then how can we hold the interior space that’s necessary for empathy—for experiencing the hurt and joy and inspiration that lie outside our own skin?
In the closing chapters of the book, we lay out a range of ideas for how we build a society that honors silence— through public policy as well as cultural change.
How can we, as a society, celebrate the benefits of silence? What should people think of when they hear the word “silence”?
We get it. The word “silence” often conjures up thoughts of mourning—like observing a moment of silence in the wake of a tragedy.
But a key takeaway from the dozens of stories and explorations in our book is that “silence isn’t just an absence of noise. It’s a presence unto itself.” The deepest silence can be vibrant and alive. In a world that’s chronically overstimulated, it can be a source of inspiration and renewal.
So, when you hear the word silence, we encourage you to think of “pristine attention.”
Think of taking a temporary break from one of life’s most basic responsibilities: Having to think of what to say.
Think of resting the mental reflexes that habitually protect a reputation or promote a point of view.
Think of silence as a stance of not-knowing, a place of letting go. Silence is accepting that it’s OK to not fill the space. It’s good to just be.
In an age of overheated nervous systems and overheated ecosystems, this isn’t just a valuable proposition for our own personal wellbeing, but for humanity as a whole.