Stop iPhone parenting and give your children the attention they need

As a trauma therapist I am always interested in learning about my clients’ childhood attachment patterns. Growing up with parents who were either emotionally unavailable, inconsistently responsive, frightened by or frightening to their child has a profoundly negative impact on social, behavioral, emotional, and neurological development. “Trauma-informed care” includes assessing for adverse childhood experiences and reframing clients’ subsequent “symptoms” and struggles as the inevitable by-products and coping strategies of attachment trauma. However, I am concerned that a newer version of attachment trauma has invaded even the most “loving” families. Our reliance on, and, in some cases addiction to, digital gadgets and technology has hijacked the face-to-face parent-child interactions that are necessary for consistent, sustained and secure attachment.

Is this scenario familiar? After standing in line at the post office for fifteen minutes – a somewhat inherently traumatic experience in and of itself – I witnessed a two-year-old having a complete meltdown. Her mother’s immediate response was to hand her an iPad. In her wisdom, the child initially rejected it. In a soothing yet frustrated tone, the mother said “Use your iPad! Do you want to look at pictures? Play a game?” The child was not appeased and continued to wail. As the woman bent towards the stroller, I felt a sense of relief, assuming she was about to pick up her dysregulated child. Instead, she turned on the tablet and said with greater agitation, “look at the pictures on your screen!” After several more minutes of crying, the child realized that what she wanted and needed-to be comforted by her mother, not an inanimate object-was not going to happen. I watched as she went into collapse, emotionally shutting down and compliantly staring at the screen.

Believing her baby was now soothed allowed the embarrassed mother to comfort herself with a cellphone, tapping and swiping until it was her turn to buy stamps. In essence, they were two strangers in line together. I have seen similar scenarios countless times: in airports, malls, restaurants, and my waiting room. Preoccupied parents entranced as they stare at their iPhone, seemingly oblivious to their child’s needs. They are content to use digital gadgets as pacifiers and babysitters. They are not only modeling the excessive use of cellphones, tablets, video games, and laptops, they are actually encouraging their children to be just as hypnotized, and potentially, addicted.

At the risk of sounding old fashioned and judgmental, I believe this phenomenon is worrisome. Eye gaze, appropriate loving touch, and soothing words are the hallmark features of secure attachment. In families where there is abuse or neglect, these experiences get weaponized. Eye contact becomes a vehicle for threat or intimidation, or the neglecting parent avoids eye gaze, leaving the child feeling demeaned or invisible. Touch is either physically abusive, sexually inappropriate, or unavailable to the child. Words are bullying, shaming, hypercritical or lacking in love or support. This is why caretaker perpetration is such a betrayal and profound breach of trust.

But those three critical resources for attunement are also lost when a child is offered a screen rather than the loving and grounding experience of an available parent, which makes them feel safe, calm and connected to others. It may seem unfair to associate abuse or neglect with the disconnect that happens when a child is comforted, distracted, or cajoled by a digital appliance. But what is the long-term toll it takes on healthy attachment, affect regulation, and socialization skills? Mental health researchers and therapists alike need to assess for and explore that impact, as digital technology is not going away. Questions to consider:

  • Are kids with excessive exposure to digital gadgets less comfortable with face to face interactions and more likely to struggle socially?
  • Is it harder for them to read and accurately interpret nuanced facial expressions and body language?
  • Do these kids have a healthy ability to regulate their fluctuating or overwhelming emotional states?
  • Are these kids less likely to use relationships for soothing and comfort, and more likely to numb with endeavors that are hypnotic or dissociative?
  • Despite growing up in families that are well-meaning and financially secure, are these kids actually experiencing avoidant or insecure attachment?
  • And if they are, will they struggle with the same emotional fall-out and symptomatology as abused or neglected kids?

Since technology has made our lives much easier and resources more accessible, stakeholders may be reticent about tackling this issue head-on. I believe it is our ethical responsibility to address these dynamics with the families we treat. We must empower parents to set much stricter limits on screen time and to reconnect with the relational, face-to-face-benefits of parent-child time and family time. Many kids and teenagers need to be weaned from their overuse of digital gadgets-a kind of digital detoxification-so that they can reconnect with peers and re-access their own imaginations.

For traumatized clients, the reparative experience of secure attachment often happens within the therapeutic relationship. Therapists may need to be more mindful of addressing this issue with kids who have been overexposed to digital gadgets as a resource for comfort and soothing. They should keep technology out of the therapy room and model attunement, eye gaze and appropriate words and touch so that kids and parents alike can rediscover the power of relationship. Otherwise, the next generation risks losing the ability and the desire to be fully present with others and fully engaged in the world.

Do Not Disturb: How I ditched my phone and unbroke my brain

Allow me a bit of bragging: Over the course of 30 days, my average daily phone time, as measured by the iPhone’s built-in screen time tracker, has dwindled from around five hours to just over an hour. I now pick up my phone only about 20 times a day, down from more than 100. I still use my phone for email and texting – and I’m still using my laptop plenty – but I don’t itch for social media, and I often go hours without so much as a peek at any screen.

In one of our conversations, I asked Catherine if she worried that I would relapse. She said it was possible, given the addictive properties of phones and the likelihood that they’ll only keep getting more essential. But she said that as long as I remained aware of my relationship with my phone, and continued to notice when and how I used it, I’d have gotten something valuable.

“Your life is what you pay attention to,” she said. “If you want to spend it on video games or Twitter, that’s your business. But it should be a conscious choice.”

One of the most unexpected benefits of this program is that by getting some emotional distance from my phone, I’ve started to appreciate it again. I keep thinking: Right here, in my pocket, is a device that can summon food, cars and millions of other consumer goods to my door. I can talk with everyone I’ve ever met, create and store a photographic record of my entire life, and tap into the entire corpus of human knowledge with a few swipes.

Steve Jobs wasn’t exaggerating when he described the iPhone as a kind of magical object, and it’s truly wild that in the span of a few years, we’ve managed to turn these amazing talismanic tools into stress-inducing albatrosses. It’s as if scientists had invented a pill that gave us the ability to fly, only to find out that it also gave us dementia.

But there is a way out. I haven’t taken an M.R.I. or undergone a psychiatric evaluation, but I’d bet that something fundamental has shifted inside my brain in the past month. A few weeks ago, the world on my phone seemed more compelling than the offline world – more colorful, faster-moving and with a bigger scope of rewards.

I still love that world, and probably always will. But now, the physical world excites me, too – the one that has room for boredom, idle hands and space for thinking. I no longer feel phantom buzzes in my pocket or have dreams about checking my Twitter replies. I look people in the eye and listen when they talk. I ride the elevator empty-handed. And when I get sucked into my phone, I notice and self-correct.

It’s not a full recovery, and I’ll have to stay vigilant. But for the first time in a long time, I’m starting to feel like a human again.

About the author

Kevin Roose is a columnist for Business and a writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine. His column, “The Shift,” examines the intersection of technology, business and culture

Bring ‘Hygge’ principles in to your home: How the Danish lifestyle can change your winter

Homesteading attracts people wanting a simpler lifestyle and self-sustainability. In the most recent USDA census of agriculture, the government found that out of the approximately 2.1 million farms in the U.S., around 88 percent were small family farms.

In a 2017 survey of over 4,746 young farmers, about 75 percent stated they didn’t grow up on a farm and 69 percent had post-secondary degrees. A first winter on the homestead seems long and cold when you aren’t used to the lifestyle.

Fortunately, the Danish lifestyle called hygge – pronounced hoo-gah – makes things much more comfortable. Hygge is the concept of enjoying the simple things in life. Most homesteaders already live a relatively simple life, but for the winter months on a small farm, this means staying warm and cozy and enjoying the slower pace after the harvest passes.

1. Use Lanterns and Candles

Overhead lights eat up precious energy stores, especially if you rely on solar. Use candles and lanterns for a soft, homey glow without any energy usage. Just be careful to snuff out candles and turn off lanterns before bed. Never leave an open flame unattended.

If you must use electric light, use a table lamp with a soft watt bulb rather than a harsh overhead light. During the day, take advantage of natural light by opening drapes and blinds.

2. Rev up the Fireplace or Stove

Logs crackling in a fireplace or a woodburning stove add the scents and warmth of the season to your home. An indoor fire provides seasonal ambiance and keeps you warm.

If a tree fell on your property, you probably already chopped it up. You might as well put the firewood to good use and burn it up over the winter.

3. Adjust Humidity

Natural heat sources dry out the interior of your home. Adjust indoor humidity to between 40 and 60 percent to prevent damage to hardwood floors, doors and trim.

Some simple homesteading ways for adding humidity to your home include letting your clothes air-dry inside, adding a bowl of water near heat sources and growing houseplants, because they release moisture from their leaves as a vapor.

4. Add Soft Comfort

One element of hygge is soft warmth. Add details that feel cozy, such as fuzzy throw blankets across the end of the sofa or a thick quilt at the foot of your bed. Not only do blankets and throws add a touch of softness, but they also keep you warm during the coldest months.

5. Make Tea

Warm drinks are a must when the days become blustery and daylight hours are short. Make your own fresh tea blends by drying herbs such as alfalfa, lemon balm, mint and even wild herbs.

There are dozens of herbs and plants you can either grow or find in the wild that turn into delicious and nurturing herbal tea blends. For those who don’t like tea, experiment with grinding coffee beans and making steaming coffee, hot cocoa or even hot cider cultivated from apples grown on your farm.

6. Decorate With Memories

Hygge is about simplicity and home. Surround yourself with only pieces with a story to tell. For example, if you own your grandmother’s candy dish, place it on a small table and fill it with old-fashioned hard candies.

When people come to visit, share your memories of eating the same candy out of that dish when you visited your grandmother as a small child.

Use pieces that remind you of the past and have a story to tell. Keep things simple and uncluttered, though, in true hygge spirit. One beautiful piece with an amazing story is much better than a lot of clutter scattered around.

Time to Hygge

The most hygge time of year is winter, when you can bundle up in a cozy sweater, sip on hot cocoa and throw a few logs on the fire. Follow the Danish traditions and make your homestead cozy and comfortable this season.

A few simple touches turn the cold weather and your farm into a snug respite from the cold.

Why stress is one of the best predictors of high life satisfaction

My life is messed up, why can’t I get my act together?

Most of us have heard a variation of this talk track in our heads, or we’ve heard it from others. If only, we think, I didn’t have this problem, then everything would be all right.

We feel burdened by what seems to be our unique sticky problems. Immersed in such a mindset, our actions may not demonstrate our highest values and purpose. What if, Ryan Holiday asks, the adverse circumstances we face offer “a formula for thriving not just in spite of whatever happens but because of it?

Holiday, in his book The Obstacle Is the Way, draws on the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius and other Stoic philosophers. He points out that Aurelius saw every obstacle, every adverse circumstance, “as an opportunity to practice some virtue: patience, courage, humility, resourcefulness, reason, justice, and creativity.” The more virtues we practice, the more meaning we create in our lives. Resisting our problems means we are forgoing opportunities to become the best version of ourselves.

The beauty in our lives often coexists with our burdens. The beauty remains long after the problem is gone.

“Obstacles,” instructs Holiday, “are not only to be expected but embraced. Embraced? Yes, because these obstacles are actually opportunities to test ourselves, to try new things, and, ultimately, to triumph.”

Adversity Creates Meaning in Our Lives

In her book The Upside of Stress, Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal invites her readers to “Take a moment to identify a time in your life that was a period of significant personal growth-a turning point that led to positive changes or a newly found purpose.” Now consider this: “Would you also describe this time as stressful?”

Most answer “yes.” Echoing Aurelius, McGonigal observes, “Adversity can create resilience, and trauma often inspires personal growth.” Persisting, she explains, “is about maintaining the optimism needed to pursue meaning, even in the face of adversity.”

McGonigal asks us to notice how often we see the negative side of adverse circumstances, saying This is so stressful or I’m so stressed. Our mindset matters. Reporting on experiments by Stanford psychology professor Alia Crum, McGonigal explains, when we view stress as harmful we “try to escape or reduce the stress.”

Attempts to escape can be worse than the problem. If we have a stress-is-harmful mindset, instead of addressing root causes, we try to get rid of our feelings by turning to smoking, alcohol, drugs, binge-watching television, checking our smartphones thousands of times a day, and other distractions.

There is a better way. Crum’s research shows that those with a stress-is-helpful mindset view “stressful situations as a challenge, not an overwhelming problem.” The result of that mindset shift is more productivity at work, more satisfaction with life, “more energy and fewer health problems.” Perhaps most importantly, those with a stress-is-helpful mindset “are better able to find meaning in difficult circumstances.”

With a stress-is-helpful mindset, one taps into “a natural capacity to find hope, exert choice, and make meaning.” Challenges in life are opportunities to experience “strength, growth, and resilience.”

Research shows the happiest people are not without adversity. McGonigal offers:

Happy lives are not stress-free, nor does a stress-free life guarantee happiness. Even though most people view stress as harmful, higher levels of stress seem to go along with things we want: love, health, and satisfaction with our lives.

Stress is one of the best predictors of a meaningful life. Why? McGonigal explains: “One reason is that stress seems to be an inevitable consequence of engaging in roles and pursuing goals that feed our sense of purpose.” She adds, “the ability to find meaning in our lives helps us stay motivated in the face of great difficulties.”

How Adversity Created Meaning in My Life

As a young boy, I was unaware I stuttered. Well-meaning speech pathologists turned me into a “professional” stutterer by coaching me in techniques that kept me focused on controlling disfluency. By the time I got to high school, I was afraid to speak in class out of fear of being bullied.

A self-concept as a stutterer was fully formed. When a speaking challenge was on the horizon, fretful thoughts consumed my mental bandwidth. If only I didn’t stutter, then my world would be all right, rang true.

Becoming a professor hardly seemed a wise career move, yet I had little doubt that teaching was my path.

At 24, while in graduate school, I taught my first principles of economics class. By 32, I had won the first of 10 major awards for teaching excellence.

Stutterers have difficulty with publicly reading; I was never tempted to cut corners and read my notes or PowerPoint slides. Along the way, I found that stuttering receded when I was outwardly focused, completely present in the classroom, responding to what was needed at that time and in that place. In these ways, stuttering improved my teaching.

Those early years as a professor were especially stressful. Yet, I knew there was more to life than my mental suffering, and that realization opened me to a lifelong interest in human development and spirituality. As McGonigal writes:

Human beings have an innate instinct and capacity to make sense out of their suffering. This instinct is even part of the biological stress response, often experienced as rumination, spiritual inquiry, and soul-searching. Stressful circumstances awaken this process in us. This is one more reason why a stressful life is often a meaningful life; stress challenges us to find the meaning in our lives.

Success in the classroom led to students’ requests for me to teach more courses in the MBA program. As a result, I developed a second area of expertise in leadership development, which led to fulfilling opportunities to deliver workshops.

Fretting about stuttering has not vanished in my life, but it occupies less of my mental bandwidth. I have benefited from working with speech pathologist Barbara Dahm. Dahm has studied the way normal speakers spontaneously transform thinking to audible speech. Instead of fighting disfluency with more controls, her approach helps remove a stutterer’s self-created barriers to the natural speaking process.

Has stuttering helped me make more meaning in my life? Marcus Aurelius would have said yes, adversity pointed me forward: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

In the poignant Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Tapestry,” Captain Picard has an opportunity to relive a past incident in his life; an incident for which he long regretted his actions. A thread in the tapestry of his life is pulled, and Picard’s leadership abilities are diminished. In this alternative life, instead of becoming captain, Picard is an unremarkable junior officer. His lesson learned, the trajectory of Picard’s life is restored.

It might seem that a life without adversity would be an easier path, but would the richness of our life be lost?

Turn to Your Values

McGonigal reports on research by psychologists Geoffrey Cohen and David Sherman. A simple mindset intervention of writing about your values leads to a huge payoff in your ability to cope with adversity:

When people are connected to their values, they are more likely to believe that they can improve their situation through effort and the support of others. That makes them more likely to take positive action and less likely to use avoidant coping strategies like procrastination or denial. They also are more likely to view the adversity they are going through as temporary, and less likely to think that the problem reveals something unalterably screwed up about themselves or their lives.

People may spend their lives seeking permanent solutions to ease feelings of stress in their lives. Such solutions may seem tantalizingly close; in reality, they are out of reach. Aurelius advised looking in a different direction: “Objective judgment, now at this very moment. Unselfish action, now at this very moment. Willing acceptance-now at this very moment-of all external events. That’s all you need.”

McGonigal observes that life is “not about being untouched by adversity or unruffled by difficulties.” She writes, “Although many people idealize a life without adversity, those who actually have one are less happy and healthy than those who have faced some hardship.” We can use adversity to find more meaning. Encouragingly, McGonigal writes:

The good that comes from difficult experiences isn’t from the stressful or traumatic event itself; it comes from you-from the strengths that are awakened by adversity and from the natural human capacity to transform suffering into meaning.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl taught us how to find hope and meaning amid great adversity. “Each man,” Frankl wrote, “is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” We all have the capacity to awaken to our strengths.

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership. To receive Barry’s essays subscribe at Mindset Shifts.

Describing Wetiko: Colin Wilson’s Sci-Fi Classic ‘The Mind Parasites’: Fiction or Reality?

In a very real sense, these mind parasites “cure” us of our wrong attitude towards both the world as well as ourselves. Instead of a typical virus mutating so as to become resistant to our attempts to heal it, the wetiko virus forces us to mutate relative to it. It is as though the evil of wetiko is itself the instrument of a higher intelligence. This higher power, through the revelation and understanding of wetiko, connects us to a sacred, creative source within ourselves that makes “the hydrogen bomb seem a mere candle.” In Dispelling Wetiko I write, “The wetiko bug is the greatest catalytic force of evolution ever known -as well as not known -to humanity.”

Sometimes we have to try to imagine what’s happening in order to gain access to reality. By creating a made-up fantasy world, it is as if Wilson, like the proverbial figure of “the fool” in the King’s Court, is “making light” of what is actually taking place as a way of getting the word out and telling the truth. Telling his story as if it’s fiction -i.e., not true – enables Wilson to break the taboo against speaking the truth in a world where to do so is fraught with peril, even criminalized. Sharing his tale as if it’s merely a fictional product of his creative imagination skillfully allows him to bypass the flaming editorial swords of the gatekeepers of consensus reality with a liberating knowledge that would ordinarily – if put out as a factual warning to humanity – be seen as disruptive and taboo from the point of view of the powers-that-be.

Ironically, if what Wilson is saying is true -i.e., that malevolent forces have infiltrated both our world and our minds-by presenting this information as if it’s merely fiction, he’s protecting himself from a retributive attack from the very mind parasites that he’s pretending only exist in his fantasy novel. As if a member of a timeless underground resistance movement, Wilson has managed to sneak in “living information” into a world that is unknowingly imprisoned and in desperate need of exactly such knowledge. Interestingly, while writing this article, I felt the mind parasites doing everything they can to stop me from getting this information out. Maybe, of course, this is only my overly activated imagination. In any case, I can easily feel like I am living in Colin Wilson’s mind parasites novel.

The Mind Parasites by Colin Wilson is a beautiful and powerful example of someone giving themselves creative license to express an aspect of our experience that-because it operates in the shadows of the psyche – usually goes unrecognized and easily becomes marginalized. The idea of mind parasites invading both our world and our mind sounds completely and utterly crazy, but sometimes an idea is so crazy that it just might be right.

About The Author

A pioneer in the field of spiritual emergence, Paul Levy is a wounded healer in private practice, assisting others who are also awakening to the dreamlike nature of reality. He is the author of Awakened by Darkness: When Evil Becomes Your Father(Awaken in the Dream Publishing, 2015), Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil (North Atlantic Books, 2013) and The Madness of George W. Bush: A Reflection of Our Collective Psychosis (Authorhouse, 2006). He is the founder of the “Awakening in the Dream Community” in Portland, Oregon, and facilitates a number of “Awakening in the Dream Groups” every week, in which people who are awakening to the dreamlike nature of reality come together in a way that helps everyone deepen and stabilize their lucidity. An artist, he is deeply steeped in the work of C. G. Jung, and has been a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner for over thirty years. He is the coordinator for the Portland PadmaSambhava Buddhist Center. Please visit Paul’s website www.awakeninthedream.com. You can contact Paul at paul@awakeninthedream.com; he looks forward to your reflections.

Should you listen to music while doing intellectual work? It depends

Given how many of us listen to music while studying or doing other cerebral work, you’d think psychology would have a set of clear answers as to whether the practice is likely to help or hinder performance. In fact, the research literature is rather a mess (not that that has deterred some enterprising individuals from making bold claims).

There’s the largely discredited “Mozart Effect” – the idea that listening to classical music can boost subsequent IQ, except that when first documented in the 90s the effect was on spatial reasoning specifically, not general IQ. Also, since then the finding has not replicated, or it has proven weak and is probably explained as a simple effect of music on mood or arousal on performance. And anyway, that’s about listening to music and then doing mental tasks, rather than both simultaneously. Other research on listening to music while we do mental work has suggested it can be distracting (known as the “irrelevant sound effect”), especially if we’re doing mental arithmetic or anything that involves holding information in the correct order in short-term memory.

Now, in the hope of injecting more clarity and realism into the literature, Manuel Gonzalez and John Aiello have tested the common-sense idea that the effects of background music on mental task performance will depend on three things: the nature of the music, the nature of the task, and the personality of the person. “We hope that our findings encourage researchers to adopt a more holistic, interactionist approach to investigate the effects of music (and more broadly, distractions) on task performance,” they write in their new paper in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

The researchers recruited 142 undergrads (75 per cent were women) and asked them to complete two mental tasks. The simpler task involved finding and crossing out all of the letter As in a sample of text. The more complex task involved studying lists of word pairs and then trying to recall the pairs when presented with just one word from each pair.

Each task was performed while listening to one of two versions of a piece of elevator-style instrumental music – composed for the research – or no music. One version of the music was more complex than the other, featuring additional bass and drum tracks (both versions are available via the Open Science Framework). Also, depending on the precise experimental condition, the music was either quiet or louder (62 or 78 decibels). The participants also completed part of the “boredom proneness scale” to establish whether they were the kind of person who likes plenty of external stimulation or not (as measured by their agreement with statements like “it takes a lot of change and variety to keep me really happy”).

Participants’ performance was explained by an interaction between the task, the music, and their preference for external stimulation. When performing the simpler task, participants not prone to boredom did better while listening to complex music than simple music or no music, whereas boredom prone participants showed the opposite pattern, performing better with no music at all or simple music. In terms of volume, the low boredom prone were better with quiet complex music, whereas the boredom prone did better with louder complex music.

The researchers’ explanation is that for low boredom people who aren’t so keen on external stimulation, the quieter, more complex music provided just enough distraction to stop them from mind wandering from the simple task, thus boosting their task focus and performance. In contrast, the more boredom prone participants who like external stimulation tuned in too much to the complex music and were overly distracted by it, thus performing worse than when working in silence.

For the more complex task, the precise nature of the music (its complexity and volume) made no difference to results. But people low in boredom proneness benefited from having any kind of music in the background (the researchers aren’t sure why, but perhaps there were mood or arousal-based benefits not measured in this study), whereas once again the boredom prone folk with a preference for external stimulation again actually performed better with no music.

Though these findings may seem counterintuitive, the researchers’ explanation is that, for boredom prone people, the complex task provided adequate stimulation and background music interfered with this productive engagement. Supporting this interpretation, the more boredom prone participants outperformed their less boredom prone peers at the task in the no-music condition (and at an earlier, baseline cognitive test), suggesting they engaged better with the tasks (the researchers additionally noted that this result challenges the way that boredom as an emotion is usually seen as a bad thing, suggesting “it can predict constructive outcomes, such as better complex task performance”).

If you consider yourself as prone to boredom and craving of external stimulation, a tentative implication of these findings – bearing in mind they are preliminary – is that you might be better off studying or do other cerebral work without music in the background, at least not music that is too complex. On the other hand, if you are less craving of stimulation, then paradoxically some background music could boost your performance. As the researchers stated: “we offer evidence against the commonly held belief that distractions like music will always harm task performance.” They added, “our findings suggest that the relationship between music and task performance is not ‘one-size-fits-all’. In other words, music does not appear to impair or benefit performance equally for everyone.”

Part of the problem with interpreting the results is in the ambiguity of the aspect of boredom proneness that the researchers looked at – “preference for external stimulation”. Past research has generally considered boredom proneness to be associated with less desirable aspects of personality, such as having less self-control and being more impetuous, and this could fit with the idea that boredom prone participants in this research were more distracted by background music. However, as mentioned, the participants scoring higher on “preference for external stimulation” generally performed better at the tasks, thus raising questions about what aspect of personality and/or mental aptitude was really being tapped by this measure. It doesn’t help matters that there was no direct measure of attentional control and focus in the study. (In terms of other relevant personality traits, prior research has found that introverts are more distracted than extraverts by highly arousing music).

Other obvious limitations include the question of how much the featured tasks resemble real-life challenges, and the fact that people often listen to music they know and like rather than unfamiliar, instrumental music.

Still, it’s laudable that the current research attempted to consider how various factors interact in explaining the effect of music on mental performance. Gonzalez and John Aiello concluded, “we hope our research will serve as a starting point for more systematic investigation of music.”

Silence is vital for our brains

If you’re the average person, you wake up to the sound of an alarm. That alarm sends you to the bathroom where you quickly get yourself ready for your workday. If you have the time, you might eat something before jumping into your car to listen to music or the radio while you sit in traffic on your way to work.

Once you get there, it’s all people, customers, co-workers, cars, trucks, planes, lawn mowers, construction, phone calls, and tasks for the next 8 hours. These noises that most of us experience in excess send our bodies into stress states, decreasing our quality of life and potentially reducing our lifespan. It appears that noise, in excess, is not healthy for humans. Silence, on the other hand, can have huge benefits, but let’s explore the damage caused by noise before we get to the benefits of silence.

Before we get into the research, I’d like to note that the word ‘noise’ is said to come from the Latin word nausea, or the Latin word noxia, meaning seasickness, sickness, hurt, damage, or injury. Is it any wonder ‘noise’ is not healthy for us?

The Studies

Outside of your anecdotal reflection, there is scientific evidence that supports the negative effects of noise on our health. The World Health Organisation (WHO) examined and quantified its health burden based on a European study that involved 340 million people living in Western Europe. It found that residents were cumulatively losing about a million years off their lives due to noise every year. That’s like one in every three people losing an entire year off their life due to excessive noise!

A study that was published in 2011 in Psychological Science examined the effects Munich’s airport had on children’s health and cognition. Professor Gary W. Evans of Cornell University noted that the children who were exposed to noise developed a stress response that caused them to ignore the noise. These children not only ignored harmful noises, but also regular stimuli that are important to pay attention to like speech. Wonder why people have trouble paying attention these days? Perhaps we are exposed to too much noise and too many sounds.

This study is among the strongest, probably the most definitive proof that noise-even at levels that do not produce any hearing damage-causes stress and is harmful to humans. – Professor Gary Evans

Going back to anecdotal evidence for a moment, I always find that staying with my friends who live in cities produces a much more uncomfortable situation for myself than when I’m in more quiet situations, or living at my quiet, somewhat isolated home in nature. I always share with friends that the environment of living in a city seems to be unhealthy; not just the air, but the energy, hustle and bustle, and the noise as well. Reading these studies clearly illustrates that it does not appear to be natural or healthy for humans to live or work in loud environments every day.

Noise has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, tinnitus, and loss of sleep. Living in consistently noisy environments will cause you to experience much higher levels of these harmful hormones. Of course, there is something you can do about this should you take action on it, but it requires that-action.

The Benefits of Silence

Again, pointing to anecdotal evidence for a moment, think back to the moments where you were on your own, retreating to the cottage or somewhere else quiet. Did you notice how often you NOTICED the silence? Not only that, but you likely felt a lot better after 3 or 4 hours of being there.

It isn’t just cleaner air or taking some time away from work, it’s the silence and lack of distraction. This can be observed by playing loud music and partying the entire time at a cottage as well. You’ll realize it isn’t relaxing, but simply another distraction. When you contrast the two different experiences, the benefits become more clear.

An interesting study observed the effects of noise, music, and silence on the brain. The study was published in the journal Heart and found that the two minute pauses randomly placed between the ‘relaxing music’ in the study were far more relaxing for the brain than the relaxing music. The longer the silence, the more benefits experienced by the participants. Study author L. Bernardi found that his ‘irrelevant’ blank pauses were the most important aspects of the study. Silence is heightened by contrast.

What You Can Do & The Takeaway

So, what can you do if you experience a lot of noise and are looking to avoid loud noises or simply take a break? Firstly, the good news is that the brain recovers from too much noise over time. According to the attention restoration theory, the brain’s finite cognitive resources can begin restoring when you are in an environment with lower levels of sensory input. In silence, the brain essentially lets down its sensory guard and restores some of what has been ‘lost’ through excess noise.

The practical end of this would look like making an extra effort to be or spend time in silence. This means no music, movies, friends, conversations, phone chimes, etc, even if it’s only for 30 minutes or an hour each day.

This silence would not only allow your brain to restore its cognitive functions like creativity, but it can give you the opportunity to disconnect, quiet down and connect with yourself as well.