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Michael Taft

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Concentration and Silence

Posted: 07/24/11 12:38 PM ET

This post is part 5 of my Concentration Series.

Yesterday I was deep inside a website, working on a project that took my full attention. Just as I was getting really focused, a neighbor busted out his leaf blower and started making a terrible racket. I have pretty good concentration skills, so I could continue working, but I noticed how much mental effort it took to ignore the screeching din. Besides being annoying, noise can also be a real distraction.

Evolution did not equip you to live in a world of constant noise. Your nervous system was engineered by natural selection for an environment of almost total quiet. Nature is mostly filled with soft, quiet sounds: leaves rustling, water trickling, insects buzzing. An animal call here and there. This is what your amygdala (the fear center in the brain) rates as a normal sound level. Sharp sounds, loud bangs, people yelling and crying, revving engines and the like all trigger a fear/danger response.

Noise activates the body's stress reaction, and living in an environment of chronic noise pollution leads to a condition of chronic stress. Research shows too much noise can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. It interrupts our natural sleep cycles, which creates even more stress. And stress lowers immunity, opening us up to illness in general. Children, in particular, are negatively affected by sound pollution, which has been proven to lower reading skills and impair memory.

So doing what you can to make a quieter environment is calming to the system. It allows you to relax and open up. Not only is this healthier, silence also helps to create focus. Fewer distractions allow the brain to settle into a naturally-concentrated state. When you're not surrounding yourself with interruptions and chaos, it's a lot easier to get into the flow of things.

Making a friend of silence will go a long way toward building your concentration and enhancing your meditation practice. It's not that you can't meditate with sounds around you, but just eliminate the ones you can. It will make things a lot easier.

Like all of these concentration-building habits, don't jump into it all at once. Drastically changing your routine will just cause you discomfort. Instead, little by little, reduce the number of hours per day that you have intentional background sound turned on. If you usually have music or a talk show on ten hours a day, try reducing it to eight. Try waiting a half an hour before turning on the television in the morning. This silent period will give your mind a chance to get concentrated first thing, which will help you to feel clear and concentrated all day long.

Notes: There really is a lot of research into the damaging effects of too much noise. Rather than list them all here, this article, from the British Medical Bulletin, is a good summary and contains links to the various research.