How to Hear the ‘Sound’ of Silence

“And in the naked light I saw ten thousand people, maybe more, people talking without speaking, people listening without hearing, people writing songs that voices never share; and no one dares disturb the sound of silence”, sang Simon & Garfunkel 60 years ago in their famous song The sound of silencewhere they say you can hear silence.

Now, three researchers from Johns Hopkins University, in the United States, have verified that, in fact, it can be to perceiveaccording to a study published in the journal PNAS. The silence isn’t thunderous at all, but it’s something you can literally hear, they conclude after using auditory illusions. With them, they reveal how moments of silence distort people’s perception of time.

Moments of silence distort people’s perception of time

These findings address the long-standing debate over whether people can hear more than just sounds, a question that has perplexed philosophers for centurieswith two main streams: the cognitive vision (we only judge or infer silence) and perceptive vision (we heard the silence), which seems to corroborate the new empirical approach developed by the authors, linked to the departments of Psychology and Brain Sciences and Philosophy of the American university.

“We normally think of our sense of hearing as referring to sounds. But silence, whatever it may be, is not a sound, it is the absence of it, ”she says. Rui Zhe Gohlead author, “and surprisingly, what our work indicates is that nothingness is also something that can be heard”.

Use of auditory illusions

Like optical illusions that deceive the eye, auditory illusions they can make people listen for longer or shorter periods of time than they actually are. Looking at known auditory illusions, which were previously thought to only occur with sounds, the team performed experiments in which they replaced those sounds with moments of silenceand the perception continued.

The experiments gave the illusion that a long moment of silence seemed to last longer than it fleetingly separated into two short ones.

An example is considering that one long beep seems to last longer than two consecutive short beeps, even though the two sequences are equally long. In tests with 1,000 participants, the team put silences, amid busy soundscapes in restaurants or train stations, for example, and people thought the same thing: that a long moment of silence seemed to last longer than divided into two short ones. Other illusions of silence gave the same results as the illusions of sound.

According to the researchers, the fact that these silence-based illusions produced exactly the same results as their sound-based counterparts indicates that people hear silence as well as sounds.

“The key idea is that in three different illusions that were thought to be specifically driven by the representation of auditory events, we found exactly the same types of effects when we replaced sounds with silences,” explains co-author Chaz Firestone for SINC, “it is irrefutable proof that our auditory systems treat silences in the same way as sounds, that is, as auditory events”.

We present compelling evidence that our auditory systems treat silences in the same way as sounds, that is, as auditory events.

Chaz Firestone (Johns Hopkins University)

The professor, who also directs the Mind and Perception Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, recalls that philosophers have long debated whether silence is something we can perceive, but there was no scientific study addressing this question: “Our approach was to ask ourselves whether our brain treats silences like sounds. If the former gives you the same illusions as the latter, then that might be a problem. proof this after all we literally hear the silence”.

The paradox of listening to silence

Firestone investigates the apparent contradiction of listening to silence: “Many theorists have thought that there is something puzzling or paradoxical about it. And perhaps that’s why so many have denied that we heard the silence in the first place. One of the ideas is that it’s literally nothing, the absence of something (sounds), and it might seem natural to think that we can’t hear anything.”

“However –he continues– we can think that certain silences correspond to periods of time and that we hear them because they contain no sound. A closely related idea is that considering certain silences as a special kind of event where no sound is produced”.

The findings establish a new way of studying the perception of absence, the team says. The authors intend to continue studying the extent to which people hear silences, even those that are not preceded by sound. They also plan to investigate visual disappearances and other examples of things people might perceive as missing.


Rui Zhe Goh and others. “The Perception of Silence”. Annals of the National Academy of Sciences2023.

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