Our brains need silence to make sense of things

The mind works hard in the moments between the noise.

A man is portrayed with a very active brain

New research from Australia could go a long way toward developing the next generation of brain interfaces. (Photo: Ollyy/Shutterstock)

The mind may seem to thrive on stimuli — the honking horns, the pixels percolating on this screen at this very moment, or even the way the keyboard feels under your fingers at any given time of day.

But, in fact, it may be what lies between — the time between honks, if you will — when the brain focuses on encoding the information, according to a new study from Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) and the University of New South Wales.

Of course, we’ve long known that silence is golden — especially when it comes to mental health and dealing with stress. But the new research points to the absence of stimulation as a window when the brain has a chance to learn from its environment.

Think of it as a micro-breather for the mind, allowing it to grasp and distill what it's experiencing.

Outline of neurons in the brain of a woman standing in front of a city. In our increasingly noise-addled lives, the brain registers a lot of stimuli. But it might be waiting for the silence to process it. (Photo: Lia Koltyrina/Shutterstock)

To reach that conclusion, researchers Ingvars Birznieks and Richard Vickery developed a unique way to control the neural information that’s presented to the brain. Essentially, they delivered short mechanical taps to the fingertips of study subjects.

Birznieks and Vickery ensured that each tap generated a corresponding nerve impulse to a neuron in the brain. By triggering the sense of touch — which the brain registers from vibrations along the ridge of our fingertips — the scientists were able to monitor how nerve impulses encoded the information.

The thing is, the frequency of those neuron bursts didn't match the frequency of taps.

"Instead, it was the silent period between bursts that best explained the subjects' experiences," Birznieks noted in the NeuRA blog.

Prevailing theories had it that every vibration or tap would have a corresponding nerve impulse, or the brain would be able to detect a periodic regularity in the impulse patterns.

"We were hoping to disprove one of the two competing theories, but showing they were both incorrect and finding a completely new coding strategy totally surprised us," Birznieks added.

The brain just kept ticking along to its own beat, independent of how often those fingertips were stimulated.

For neuroscience, the findings could be a game-changer. A better understanding of how the brain fields daily neural impulses could pave the way for more efficient interfaces between brain and machine.

And for the rest of us, it suggests that in a increasingly noise-addled society — where every sense seems in danger of over-stimulation — it may do a body good to give the brain a breather.

Perhaps a moment or two of silence can help us make sense of it.

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