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Humans Really Can Hear Silence

Ever since the days of the ancient Greeks, scientists and philosophers have debated whether silence is ever 'heard'. Now, researchers from Johns Hopkins University in the US may just have settled the issue.

Woman requesting silence with a finger to her mouth

Researchers made clever use of a well-known trick called the one-is-more illusion, which fools the brains of listeners into thinking two discrete sounds are shorter than one single sound, even though in reality the total time is the same.

Replacing sounds with silence, the team found that the illusion still worked. A single continuous silence is perceived as being longer than two separate silences, despite them actually being the same duration overall.

"Silence, whatever it is, is not a sound - it's the absence of sound," says Rui Zhe Goh, a graduate student in philosophy and psychology from Johns Hopkins University. "Surprisingly, what our work suggests is that nothing is also something you can hear."

The researchers posit that because we're reacting to silence in the same way as sound in these tricks, we're truly hearing that silence - not just inferring that it's there.

Many studies now show that silence can be important in perceiving sounds - like the way we leave pauses between words - but until this point there hasn't been any solid experimental evidence that silence itself can serve as a stimulus that the brain hears.

It seems that Simon & Garfunkel were on to something after all.


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