For centuries, scholars and philosophers have debated whether or not silence can be heard. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in the US have taken the lead with a new series of experiments: “Surprisingly, our work suggests that nothing can be heard either,” say the researchers.
The researchers took advantage of the one-is-more illusion, a well-known trick that tricks the listeners’ brains into thinking two separate sounds are shorter than one, when in fact the total time is the same. During the experiment, the sound was replaced by silence. The researchers found that this illusion still works.
“Silence, whatever it is, is not healthy — it is the absence of sound,” said Rui Zhi Goh, a graduate student in philosophy and psychology at Johns Hopkins University. “Surprisingly, our work indicates that there is nothing you can hear either.”
absence of sound
The researchers argue that people actually hear the silence and don’t just infer that it is there, because in these tricks listeners respond to the silence in the same way as the sound. A total of 1,000 participants were recruited for seven experiments.
In addition to the one-is-more illusion, other similar tests were performed, with partial silence and silence varying in how close they were or how far apart they were. Background sounds such as busy restaurants and train stations were used to frame silences for some experiments, while there were variations on tones for others.
The effects were the same across all trials: silence seemed to be processed in the same way as sound. Research contributes to increasing our knowledge of how our hearing works. “The kind of illusions and effects that appear to be unique to auditory processing of sound also occur in silence, suggesting that we do indeed hear in the absence of sound,” said Ian Phillips, a philosopher and psychologist at Johns Hopkins University.
Silence is important when perceiving sound
“Philosophers have long debated whether silence is something we can perceive literally, but there hasn’t been any scientific research that has directly addressed this question,” said Chazz Firestone, a cognitive scientist at Johns Hopkins University.
Several studies are now showing that silence may be important in the perception of sounds – such as the way we pause between words – but so far there is no strong experimental evidence that silence itself can act as a stimulus that the brain hears.
The researchers want to see how we might perceive silence if it is completely separate from sound. It also raises the question whether we experience complete silence and can help us treat various hearing problems.
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