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Why Being Comfortable with Silence Is a Superpower

The fascinating science of silence: Why it’s healthier to embrace than fight it.

Key points

  • Silence is good for well-being, but digital technology may be exacerbating people’s fear of silence.
  • Even a brief silence in conversation can cause negative emotions and feelings of ostracism to bubble up.
  • Fear of silence is a learned behavior—which means it can be unlearned, using practices like those below.

Silence is the absence of intentional sound or purposeful quiet—and for many people it’s unsettling. Research (Koudenburg et al., 2011) in the Netherlands found that it takes only four seconds of silence in conversation for Americans to feel rattled, rejected, or insecure.

Contrast this to another study (Yamada, 2015) that found Japanese people are happy to sit in silence with others for up to 8.2 seconds. This may not be surprising given the Japanese concept of haragei that suggests the most effective type of communication is actually not speaking.

Regardless of where people reside, an alarming trend has emerged—that is, the fear of silence, or what some have called sedatephobia. Sedatephobia originates from the Greek Sedate meaning “silent or sleeping or dead” and Phobos meaning “aversion, fear, or morbid fear.”

A study by Bruce Fell (2012) suggested that digital technology and social media are exacerbating not only people’s intolerance for silence but also their dread of it, in some cases so much so that it results in panic attacks or significant anxiety. “When there is no noise in my room it scares me,” said one of the 580 undergraduate students interviewed. “I began doing this assignment in the library and had to return to my room minutes later to get my iPod as I found the library was so quiet that I couldn’t concentrate properly,” said another.

The Science of Silence: Why It’s Both Awkward and Healthy

Human beings have an evolution-driven desire for connection and acceptance; we are social beings to our core. When someone doesn’t respond to us as quickly as we’d like, the silence can be interpreted as rejection. A long time ago, rejection from our social group meant existential risk. But even today, the instinct is still there.

Koudenburg et al., (2011) found that fluent conversations are associated with feelings of belonging, self-esteem, and social validation. If even a brief silence disrupts this flow, negative emotions and feelings of ostracism can bubble up.

Also, in the quiet space between spoken words lurks uncertainty. Human beings generally don’t embrace uncertainty well. What we don’t know, we can’t control—and what we can’t control casts us into an unsafe and insecure limbo, with anticipation about what might be said or how others will respond fueling anxiety.

Even when we’re by ourselves, silence can be ominous; we can’t escape our automatic thoughts, particularly the ones that spotlight fears and insecurities; this can cause rumination. Unstructured moments of silence can also make us aware of aspects of ourselves and of life that the structure of noise drowns out. Silence can wake us up to truth—truths that we may not want to acknowledge.

And yet we do ourselves a great disservice if we view these truths as bad or worrisome. Amazing, inspiring, and life-giving truth can also be found in silence.

The Benefits of Silence for Our Well-Being

  • Increases concentration. We almost always lose focus when sound reaches around 80 decibels. A silent environment or one with a modicum of background noise helps to maximize concentration.
  • Inspires creativity. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2006) found that exceptional creators are more likely to be introverts, who are known for preferring quiet environments. Research (de Vet, 2007) also suggested that people are more creative when they enjoy freedom from interruption.
  • Heightens self-awareness. Silence assists in interoceptive awareness—that is, perceiving inner physical sensations like heartbeat, respiration, and satiety, and activating the brain’s default mode network, an area that integrates the conscious and subconscious, helping to build new muscle memory, digest new concepts, and absorb new insights.
  • Improves learning and productivity. Imke Kirste and colleagues (2013) found that two hours of silence per day could create new brain cells that are linked to learning, memory, and emotion regulation.
  • De-stresses and provides a sense of calm. Two minutes of silence has been shown to relieve body tension and relax the mind (Bernardi et al., 2006). Silence was also found to significantly improve mood states and alter one’s perception of time and orientation toward the present moment.
  • Improves relationships. Silence between people can provide space for receptivity, listening, hearing, discernment, and intimacy. This is drastically different than giving someone the “silent treatment,” which research (Schrodt, 2014) shows is highly destructive to relationships.
  • Has a direct and positive impact on the body. Silence lowers blood pressure, prevents plaque from forming in arteries, boosts the immune system, and promotes hormone regulation.

Practices for Savoring Silence

The fear of silence is a learned behavior and so, can also be unlearned. Here are a few practices:

  • Consider your relationship with silence: What insecurities make you uncomfortable with silence? Look for patterns and connections.
  • Remind yourself that silence has purpose in all conversations, like making conversations more interesting, giving others space to respond, and creating intimacy.
  • Chatter won’t save a conversation, but silence can. Rather than filling frustrating gaps in conversation, try counting to yourself, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi…” It gives you something to do.
  • Learn how to get out of silence. If the silence gets to 45 seconds, try saying, “What I said seems to have made you uncomfortable. Should we come back to this after you’ve had some time to think about it?” Often this will initiate a response.
  • Practice waiting 2-3 seconds after someone’s stopped talking to respond. This shows that you’re actually listening to the other person, rather than biding time until it’s your turn to speak.
  • Avoid filler sounds like “Umm…” “Huh…” “Ehhh…” and “Errr…” They just add to the awkwardness or anxiety.
  • Mindfulness meditation. Find one to four minutes a day to sit in silence and perceive your surroundings.
  • Rethink “downtime.” Engage in “productive silence” when there’s a lull in activities.
  • Get noise-cancelling headphones and forgo the music. Something new may inspire you with all that neuro-cell growth.
  • Don’t view silence as a failure or problem. Silence is an opportunity to pause, reflect, and gather thoughts; and to observe, take in, digest, and process. Use silence to become more comfortable with yourself and others, rather than becoming anxious and disconnected.

“Silence is a source of great strength,” said Lao Tzu. But, admittedly, it takes some effort to build that muscle. It may take half a second for sensory information from the outside world to integrate into our conscious experience, but often, and for good reason, sitting with prolonged silence can lead to more meaningful connections and a generally healthy life experience.


Bernardi, L., Porta, C., & Sleight, P. (2006). Cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and respiratory changes induced by different types of music in musicians and non-musicians: the importance of silence. Heart (British Cardiac Society), 92(4), 445–452.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999) Edited extract from R. Sternberg (Ed) (1999) Handbook of Creativity. Cambridge University Press, 313–35.

de Vet, Arne. (2007). The Effects of Thinking in Silence on Creativity and Innovation. Biological Psychology.

Fell, B. (2012). Bring the noise: has technology made us scared of silence?. The Conversation. Retrieved June 9, 2024 from

Katz, L. (2020). How tech and social media are making us feel lonelier than ever. CNET. Retrieved June 9, 2024 from

Kirste, I., Nicola, Z., Kronenberg, G., Walker, T. L., Liu, R. C., & Kempermann, G. (2015). Is silence golden? Effects of auditory stimuli and their absence on adult hippocampal neurogenesis. Brain Structure & Function, 220(2), 1221–1228.

Klatte, M., Bergström, K., & Lachmann, T. (2013). Does noise affect learning? A short review on noise effects on cognitive performance in children. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 578.

Koudenburg, N., Postmes, T., & Gordijn, E. H. (2011). Disrupting the flow: How brief silences in group conversations affect social needs. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(2), 512–515.

Schnitker, S. A., & Emmons, R. A. (2007). "Patience as a virtue: Religious and psychological perspectives". In Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion, Volume18. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Schrodt, P., Witt, P. L., & Shimkowski, J. R. (2013). A meta-analytical review of the demand/withdraw pattern of interaction and its associations with individual, relational, and communicative outcomes. Communication Monographs, 81(1), 28–58.

Yamada, Haru (2015) "Yappari, as I thought: Listener talk in Japanese communication," Global Advances in Business and Communications Conference & Journal, 4(1). Available at:

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