You can actually hear silence, new research suggests

Simon and Garfunkel were onto something – there is such a thing as the sound of silence…

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Simon & Garfunkel at Wembley Stadium

Image: Simon & Garfunkel shot by David Redfam / Getty Images

New research has suggested that silence is something we perceive in the same way as other sounds.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University believe that, by using auditory illusions, they’ve demonstrated that the absence of sound is still something you can hear, answering a question philosophers have been puzzling over for centuries.

“We typically think of our sense of hearing as being concerned with sounds,” explained lead study author Rui Zhe Goh, a Johns Hopkins University graduate student in philosophy and psychology. “But silence, whatever it is, is not a sound – it’s the absence of sound. Surprisingly, what our work suggests is that nothing is also something you can hear.”

The team based their research around a common auditory illusion called the ‘one is more’ illusion, in which people perceive a continuous beep noise to be longer than two beeps of the same cumulative length.

They played 1,000 people two periods of silence of equal length, but then put a short burst of noise into one of them. Participants believed the continuous silence was longer. Other silence illusions yielded the same outcomes as their corresponding sound illusions also.

According to the researchers, the fact the silence-based illusions produced the same results as their sound-based counterparts, they can conclude that people hear silence like they hear ordinary sounds.

See for yourself below:

“Philosophers have long debated whether silence is something we can literally perceive, but there hasn’t been a scientific study aimed directly at this question,” said Chaz Firestone, an Assistant Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences who directs the Johns Hopkins Perception & Mind Laboratory. “Our approach was to ask whether our brains treat silences the way they treat sounds. 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.”


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