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Quiet, please! The commodification of silence


The commodification of quiet – how silence became a top trend in wellness tourism.

The wellness industry is worth trillions and has, in recent years, produced myriad peculiar products: kale-based drinks, turmeric supplements, charcoal detoxes, kombucha and so on. Trends in the wellness industry are ripe for satire, as evidenced by the fun had with the vaginal muscle-toning jade eggs suggested by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop website.

Still, I was surprised to read that silence is apparently one of the top trends in the contemporary wellness industry. Silence? Shut up! How do you make money out of silence?

The emerging vogue for silence was highlighted by a recent report on the Global Wellness Summit, in which it was also claimed that silence promotes neurogenesis (the process by which new neurons are formed in the brain). For evidence, the report pointed to a study that found “two hours of silence daily incited significant cell development in the hippocampus, the brain region related to the formation of memory”. The subtext (suggested rather than explicitly stated) was that spending time listening to the sound of nothing could protect against dementia and depression.

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Well it might, although unsurprisingly the study (done by researchers at Duke University in 2013) involved mice, not humans. It does make for interesting reading though. The researchers hadn’t actually set out to study the impact of silence on mice, but the effects of three different types of sounds on three groups of mice: white noise, the sound of baby mice calls, and Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos. (Subjecting the mice to Mozart was a “somewhat tongue-in-cheek” intervention, the researchers said, as that particular piece is associated with the generally discredited “Mozart effect” – a theory that listening to classical music makes you smarter.)

There was also a fourth group of mice, a control group, which was exposed to two hours of silence each day. Unexpectedly, the researchers found that while the first three groups of mice experienced some positive neurological benefits, they weren’t long-lasting, not even among the mice that listened to Mozart. In the “control group”, however, something about that uncanny quiet prompted the mice to make new neurons. Lead researcher Imke Kirste noted that if a link between “silence and neurogenesis could [my italics] be established in humans, perhaps [my italics] neurologists could find a therapeutic use for silence”.

It hasn’t yet been proven that silence promotes neurogenesis in humans, but perhaps a lack of auditory stimulation could actually be therapeutic, even if we’re not mice? Anyway, that seems to be the philosophy underpinning the “silent spas” that have emerged in recent years in Canada, Mexico, Austria, Italy, France, Germany etc, often set in former monasteries and where, along with yoga classes, massages and mindfulness sessions, you get enforced periods of silence: no-talking meals, no-talking hikes, silent bathing and technologies that allow you to hit a “kill switch” to disconnect your room from wifi and mobile reception.

Only disconnect! Sorry, I didn’t mean to shout, but going off the grid (for a bit) is apparently also all the go in wellness travel. Time to Log Off, a UK-based company set up to help people “discover the joys of regularly disconnecting with technology”, offers “Mindful Digital Detox and Yoga Retreats” in places such as Italy, Hawaii and Cornwall. The Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas now offers “Digital Wellness options” with “silenced phones and no electronic interruptions”. According to its website, this includes “a complimentary Digital Silence service” – which seems to mean you can leave your phone at the desk before you head off for your sauna. There are, of course, less posh ways to go off the grid. Going bush, for instance? Turning off your phone without paying someone else to look after it?

That silence (or at least the absence of noise) could have health benefits is nothing new. Silence has long been a feature of retreats that offer meditation and mindfulness training, and many people swear by it, the theory being that sitting in silence obliges you to listen to the voices in your own head, which helps you recognise the habits of your thinking so you can learn how to tell those voices to shut the hell up. I’d love to know how to do that (particularly at 3am), although I imagine it takes time, practice and discipline.

Trappist monks and some orders of nuns have been using silence for centuries to deepen their relationship with God, but joining a nunnery or monastery typically also requires renouncing worldly goods. Which is probably why I find news that former monasteries are being used as contemporary wellbeing destinations offering the conspicuous consumption of a very affluent kind of quiet, well, disquieting.

Still, I’m all for a bit more peace and quiet. Who isn’t? Noise is bad for us. Florence Nightingale knew that, writing, “Unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that can be inflicted on sick or well.” More and more research is showing noise promotes the release of the stress hormone cortisol, increases the risk of high blood pressure and, among those exposed to excessive noise for long periods of time (those who live near an airport or busy motorway, for instance; people who can’t afford to live in quieter suburbs), is associated with increased risk of stroke, coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease.

I don’t live under a flight path or near a busy road, but I’m the kind of person whose heart often beats faster, not in a good way, in response to other people’s noises. I’m the kind of person who walks out of a shop if the “music” is too loud, who asks restaurants to turn down the sound (they never do), who glares at people who talk loudly into their phones on the bus or talk to people loudly via Skype or WhatsApp at the table next to me in a restaurant. Seriously, people actually do that. Am I getting older, or is the world getting noisier?

I guess that depends on who you are and where you live, but it probably is. So it’s encouraging to read that in some parts of the world, the trend for less noise, a bit more quiet, is expanding beyond the fancy spas. In the UK, some gyms and retail outlets are offering quiet times, special hours where there is no music or announcements over the loudspeaker system. Bring on the quiet times. A couple of years ago, a salon in Cardiff began offering the “quiet chair”: a “no-chat treatment” for those who want their hair done without the small talk. No questions asked. Nice.

According to Global Wellness, silence is “not the new kale” but “one of the most meaningful trends in wellness that will only deepen and evolve in years ahead”.

I hope so, but peace and quiet – or if you prefer, our “auditory wellbeing” – shouldn’t be the preserve of the affluent, an on-trend commodity. It’s something we are all entitled to, not as consumers but as a society, and we shouldn’t need noise-cancelling headphones to find it, either.

This article was first published in the October 2018 issue of North & South.