It appears Simon & Garfunkel were on to something.
“We typically think of our sense of hearing as being concerned with sounds. But silence, whatever it is, is not a sound – it’s the absence of sound,” said Rui Zhe Goh, lead author of the study. “Surprisingly, what our work suggests is that nothing is also something you can hear.”
Similar to optical illusions, the research team based their work on well-known auditory illusions—primarily, the illusion that sounds can seem longer than they actually are like an interruptive car alarm in the middle of the night.
In this case, research suggests that one long sound often seems longer than two shorter, consecutive sounds.
Researchers took this phenomenon and turned it on its head, interrupting the ambient sounds of a bustling restaurant with patterns of silence.
After testing 1,000 participants, they found that the same results applied to the patterns of silence. This indicates that the same illusions scientists previously thought could only be initiated by sounds, also work when replaced with silence.
EDM fans will know this phenomenon all too well. No one likes when the sound cuts out during their favorite DJ set.
“Our approach was to ask whether our brains treat silences the way they treat sounds,” said Chaz Firestone, director of the Johns Hopkins Perception & Mind Laboratory. “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.”
Try out the phenomenon for yourself in the video below.
Featured image by Freepik.