07/12/2012 03:12 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2012

The Need for Silence

Sitting in the dentist's chair, I faced a wall-mounted TV on which Headline News was reporting about forest fires in Colorado. I assumed the news was playing to give me something to do while I waited, perhaps on the theory that a mentally occupied patient is a happier one. When the dental hygienist began working, she lowered my head. I could no longer see the screen. Neither could she. But the reporters talked away.

At the movie theater the day before, ads filled the screen for at least 10 minutes before the movie trailers began. For many, who were on their iPhones, texting or surfing the Web, the ads were only of occasional interest. When the lights lowered, many in the theater appeared as little lightning bugs, screens aglow until the last moment.

These are not isolated examples of our tendency to fill every minute of our lives. In many cases, others do it for us. There is no silence at sporting events, even between innings, periods or quarters. Hotel elevators play music (or scroll news), theme parks show videos for those waiting in line, cable channels never sign off, stores play music or advertise specials. Sometimes we are the suppliers of our own continuous live "feeds" of news, information, and entertainment. We talk on cell phones even at traffic lights, have a TV in every room, carry our iPads as if they were biological appendages, text while we're talking, eating, waiting for appointments, and even during those appointments. Even when we run or walk through a park, we are increasingly connected through an earpiece to an iPod or cell phone.

The reasons we stay "switched on" vary. For those serving or selling to us, the arguments run from providing amusement or information to marketing to keeping us occupied. We may find this helpful or harassing. When we are the source of our own stimulation, we may feel more efficient, connected, informed, alive, or entertained. What we give ourselves we most often conclude is useful. No doubt sometimes it is. But what we rarely give ourselves is silence.

T.S. Eliot, in The Rock, noted that we have "knowledge of speech, but not of silence." Silence seems to have fallen into disrepute. Yet, when we hold silence at bay, we hide ourselves from the natural world. The sound of the bullfrog on a summer evening, the mating calls of neighborhood birds as the sun rises, the wind rustling through the oak trees signaling an approaching storm are vital reminders of our connection to nature and that what we do in and to the world has consequences for ourselves and many beyond ourselves.

When we are perpetually tuned in, we weaken our ability to tune out. This can dampen both our imagination and contemplation. We substitute the thinking of others -- or often just noise -- for our own. When sound overwhelms us, we lose our capacity for mindfulness. Research on the brain shows that creativity is more likely when the mind is quiet, allowing neural connections from different parts of the brain to find each other, thankfully unblocked by distractions.

When we lose silence, we lose balance in our lives. We know that a fit body comes from periods of stretching alternated with periods of rest. A fit psyche similarly depends on periods of sound alternating with periods of quiet. When we are always with someone or something else, we also lose the ability to be alone, which means we weaken the ability to be in touch with and appreciate ourselves. Silence also reminds us of the importance of sound. Without the former, the latter can become just noise, losing its value.

We have filled our lives with sound, and we are often richer for it. Yet, like any strength pushed too far, our love affair with sounds can become a weakness. Disconnecting from sound may enable us to recover the virtues and pleasures of silence. We should not fear the empty space that silence creates, for in it we may find something invaluable, the sound of ourselves.