The Sound of Silence

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Silence may be the absence of sound but a new study suggests people can actually hear it, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

For their paper, scientists conducted a series of experiments on 1,000 participants using well-known auditory illusions typically employed to examine noise perception. For their experiments, the researchers modified these illusions to measure participants’ responses to silence instead.

In one experiment, participants listened to a recording resembling ambient noise in a crowded place, that was interrupted in the first half of the recording by two short periods without sound, and in the second half by one longer period of silence.

Then the researchers asked participants which silence felt longer – the combination of the first two periods of silence or the longer, single one. Although the uninterrupted silence was actually the same length as the two shorter ones combined, most of the test subjects believed the single period of silence was longer.

The team explained that the findings were in line with previous research on similar illusions that involved sound rather than silence. They added that both sound and silence can influence a person’s perception of time.

Because participants appeared to be deceived by these “silence illusions,” the authors suggested that our auditory system treats silence in a manner consistent with how it treats sounds.

Even though there is a lack of sound, the ability to perceive and hear silence implies that the act of hearing encompasses more than just sound waves.

“If you can get the same illusions with silences as you get with sounds, then that may be evidence that we literally hear silence after all,” co-author Chaz Firestone said.

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