“Hey, everyone,” I said to my family. “Listen.”

We all stopped talking, and quiet wrapped around us like a warm blanket. A light breeze rustled the oak leaves above us. Bees and hummingbird murmured in a patch of wildflowers.

“Do you hear that?” I said. “Wherever we end up going, I need that.”

We were enjoying a cool summer sunset on the porch of our little house at the edge of a national forest in California, planning where to go next. For six years we’d been saturated with the awesome beauty of nature. Now we hankered to be near the awesome beauty of, say, convenient dental care.

A few months later we moved to a patch of forest in Pennsylvania, where you can both walk in the woods and find a cup of coffee less than an hour’s drive away. I love my new home, but when a plane flies overhead or a car passes half a mile away, my whole nervous system contracts a little. I only notice this for two reasons: I was lucky enough to live in nature for years on end, and I’ve read a lot about how the cacophony of modern life stresses our minds and bodies. Civilization is wonderful, but all that noise takes its toll. These days, learning to find quiet somewhere—even if only within ourselves—isn’t just a nice idea. It’s a necessity.

The technology tempest

If you’re not living off the grid somewhere, reading this on a laptop in your yurt, you’re probably experiencing more clamor and chaos than your system was built to handle. Until just a few hundred years ago—an evolutionary eyeblink—any given human could expect to know about 50 to 150 people over a lifetime. Small bands of humans were surrounded by natural sounds and landscapes. Once every blue moon or so they’d encounter something deafeningly loud or blindingly bright, like a lightning storm.

These days, the “lightning storm” never stops.

We’re constantly flooded with stimuli specifically designed to grab our attention, pouring through a host of new technologies. In his book The Attention Merchants, author Tim Wu writes that business “needs people who are in a distracted state, or who are perpetually distractable, and thus open to advertising.” They deliberately create whatever most boggles our minds. According to one study, each of us takes in about 74 gigabytes of information every day—the amount of information we evolved to absorb over the course of our entire lives.[1] In addition, social media connects us with more people than we were ever meant to “follow.”

The cost of noise

All this clamor has huge, measurable impacts on our physical and psychological health. The literal noises of modern life—all the honking, buzzing, roaring, and crashing we think of as “normal”—weaken our resistance to heart disease, high blood pressure, mood swings, cognitive impairment, and a host of other health problems (not to mention hearing loss).[2] Constant distraction makes us less able to focus and learn. As you may know, if you’ve ever sat in a room full of people while everyone stares at their phones, we have less time and patience to build meaningful relationships.

It’s amazing how well most people are bearing up under these conditions. But try as we might, as the literal and figurative noise in our lives continues to rise and we get more and more distracted, even the hardiest among us often feel frazzled, confused, or overwhelmed. Nature simply didn’t arm us with any inborn defense against the environmental stressors we face. To rise above the noise, we must take deliberate action.

“Weather-proofing” your brain for the storm of life

I lived away from most human contact for about six years. No roads went past my property, and only one road led to it. I spent hours every day in silence, walking or meditating. I knew that the noise of modern life can affect our health, but I had no idea what that meant until day after day of living in the quiet slowly unspooled my nerves and gave me back to myself.

Though I wish everyone could have that experience, I know not everyone can retreat into the wilderness. However, I know from experience we can find quiet and calm above the noise of life, wherever we live. It just takes a little training.

Our brains have a natural tendency to focus on anything that would be anomalous in nature: bright colors and lights, loud or repetitive noises, histrionic displays of emotion. The people competing for our attention manipulate this inborn tendency. That’s why television, advertisements, social media displays, and political spectacles keep getting bigger, brighter, flashier, crazier, and louder. Left to themselves, our brains end up careening around this information storm, never coming to rest. But we can learn to be still in the midst of chaos.

Brain training for peace and quiet

Try this: Close your eyes for a few seconds and recall something big and dramatic that got your attention: a superhero movie, a Presidential election, a hard-fought football game on TV. Remember the shouting, crashing, loud music, and bright images. Then come back to these words. Go.

That should have been pretty easy—your brain is wired to focus on loud, flashy things. They’re easy to pay attention to and easy to remember.

Now try something else. Alongside the high-intensity experiences stored in your brain are moments of quiet, peace, and calm. They don’t stand out as much, because they weren’t designed to grab your attention. Your brain won’t go to them on its own. But you can focus on them deliberately.

Now close your eyes again. This time, remember a moment in your life when nothing was happening. Really, nothing. Maybe you once went into the office early and sat sipping a cup of coffee before anyone else arrived. Maybe you can recall the blessed stillness when your sick baby finally calmed and fell asleep. What came up for me was a day I pooch-sat five large dogs. They played, barked, bayed, and roughhoused furiously for an hour or so. Then they dozed off all around me. I sat there for a while, just listening to the faint, sweet sound of their breathing. That quiet is calming me down right now.

Finally, try this: Listen to whatever is happening around you. Maybe you can hear city traffic, or people talking, or silverware clinking. Notice that. And then notice that all these sounds are taking place in a field of silence. In the wee hours of the morning, when the noise may be gone, the silence will remain. Listen for it. Listen to it.

If you managed to remember a still or peaceful moment, or if you can even imagine the silence beneath the noise you hear this moment, you’ve already begun training your brain to find peace in a time of chaos.

The rest is just mileage.

Brain-training for peace

What I mean is that our brains, while primed to notice noise, can become tuned to anything we focus on. Each time we touch stillness, in memory or in real-time perception, we fire a neural connection that becomes stronger each time we repeat it. Focus on noise a thousand times, and you’ll have a brain that can’t experience anything else. Focus on silence a thousand times, and you’ll literally build a sanctuary inside your own skull. Because what shapes us isn’t what we hear. It’s what we listen to.

After moving back from the wilderness, I went through a period of hating human noise. I could feel my health declining, my attention fragmenting, and my mood souring. But then I remembered that my attention is mine to direct and that by simply finding silence within me, I could move back into those calming days under the oak trees. Again and again, I made a point of remembering quiet when I felt bothered by noise. And I found that the quiet in my mind was as beautiful as the quiet of the forest.

I learned that my life isn’t shaped by what I hear; it’s shaped by what I listen to.

Neuroscientists now know that if we can attain a brain state, like peace or compassion, we are capable of turning it into a trait—a hard-wired part of our physical neural structures. They’ve seen this in people who focus over and over on things that uplift and comfort them, no matter what’s happening. They’ve learned that we can take refuge in compassion when the world seems cruel, in humor when circumstances look grim, and in quiet when the world gets loud. It’s never been as loud as it is today. But if we can find the stillness inside and around us, we can become points of quiet in a clamorous world.

And as I said to my family, all those months ago, wherever we end up going, we need that.

 

This essay was featured in Maria Shriver’s The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise.

[1] Bohn, R., and Short, J. 2012. Measuring consumer information. Int. J. Comm. 6:980–1000.

[2] Published in the print edition of the New Yorker May 13, 2019, issue, with the headline “Volumetrics.”