All silences are not equal, some seem quieter than others. Why? It’s all to do with the way our brains adapt to the world around us, as Tom Stafford explains
A “deafening silence” is a striking absence of noise, so profound that it seems to have its own quality. Objectively it is impossible for one silence to be any different from another. But the way we use the phrase hints at a psychological truth.
The secret to a deafening silence is the period of intense noise that comes immediately before it. When this ends, the lack of sound appears quieter than silence. This sensation, as your mind tries to figure out what your ears are reporting, is what leads us to call a silence deafening.
What is happening here is a result of a process called adaptation. It describes the moving baseline against which new stimuli are judged. The way the brain works is that any constant simulation is tuned out, allowing perception to focus on changes against this background, rather than absolute levels of stimulation. Turn your stereo up from four to five and it sounds louder, but as your memory of making the change rapidly fades, your mind adjusts and volume five becomes the new normal.
Adaptation doesn’t just happen for hearing. The brain networks that process all other forms of sensory information also pull the same trick. Why can’t you see the stars during the daytime? They are still there, right? You can’t see them because your visual system has adapted to the light levels from the sun, making the tiny variation in light that a star makes against the background of deep space invisible. Only after dark does your visual system adapt to a baseline at which the light difference created by a star is meaningful.
Just as adaption applies across different senses, so too does the after-effect, the phenomenon that follows it. Once the constant stimulation your brain has adapted to stops, there is a short period when new stimuli appear distorted in the opposite way from the stimulus you’ve just been experiencing. A favourite example is the waterfall illusion. If you stare at a waterfall (here’s one) for half a minute and then look away, stationary objects will appear to flow upwards. You can even pause a video and experience the illusion of the waterfall going into reverse.
It’s a phenomenon called the motion after effect. You can get them for colour perception or for just lightness-darkness (which is why you sometimes see dark spots after you’ve looked at the sun or a camera flash).
After-effects also apply to hearing, which explains why a truly deafening silence comes immediately after the brain has become adapted to a high baseline of noise. We perceive this lack of sound as quieter than other silences for the same reason that the waterfall appears to suck itself upwards.
So while it is true that all silences are physically the same, perhaps Spinal Tap lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel was onto something with his amplifier dials that go up to 11. When it comes to the way we perceive volume, it is sometimes possible to drop below zero.
Every so often, the ‘is psychology a science?’ debate sparks up again, at which point, I start to weep. It’s one of the most misplaced, misfiring scientific discussions you can have and probably not for the reasons you think.
To understand why it keeps coming around you need to understand something about the politics of studying things.
Science has higher status in academia and industry than the humanities so suggesting to a practitioner that “they’re not a scientist” can be the equivalent of suggesting “you’re not as valuable as you make out”.
This plays in out in two ways: less scientific disciplines get less funding and people start being knobs at parties. The second is clearly more serious.
Probably every psychologist has had the experience of someone coming up to them and drunkenly suggesting that psychology is ‘all made up’. Psychiatrists get the same sort of crap but in the ‘you’re not a real doctor’ vein from other medics.
This makes people who work in psychological disciplines a bit insecure, so they’ll swear blind that ‘psychology is a science’.
Psychology, however, is not a science. It’s a subject area. And you can either study it scientifically or non-scientifically.
I’m going to leave aside the debate of what defines science, which has been better covered elsewhere. No, there isn’t a strict definition of science, but the “you know it when you see it” approach is sufficient if we want to see if something can be widely considered scientific.
I’m also going to leave aside the debate about whether you can study mind and behaviour scientifically. It’s clear that you can, even if some areas are harder to measure than others. This is what is usually meant by the “is psychology a science?” debate. I consider this to be a settled issue but it is also where the debate usually misfires.
In other words, psychology can be a science, but it isn’t only a science.
There are many folks who do legitimate psychology research who are not doing science. It’s not that they think they are but really aren’t (pseudoscience) or that they’re doing it so poorly it barely merits the name (bad science). It’s that they don’t want to do science in the first place.
Instead, they are doing qualitative research, where they intend to uncover patterns in people’s subjective impressions without imposing their own structure onto it.
Let me give you an example.
Perhaps I want to find out what leads victims of serious domestic violence to drop a prosecution despite the abuser already being safely in jail, pending trial.
I could come up with a list of motivations I think might be plausible and then find a way of testing whether they are present, but essentially, no matter how rigorous my methods, the study still depends on what I think is plausible to begin with.
This could be a problem because I may not know a whole lot about the area. Or worse, I may think I do, but might largely be basing my assumptions on prejudice and what passes for ‘common sense’.
Qualitative methods get at how people understand the situation from their own perspective and it looks at common themes across what they say.
In this case, the study by Amy Bonomi and colleagues applied a kind of qualitative analysis called grounded theory to transcripts of jailhouse phone calls between victims of domestic violence and the abusers.
Here’s what they found:
…a victim’s recantation intention was foremost influenced by the perpetrator’s appeals to the victim’s sympathy through descriptions of his suffering from mental and physical problems, intolerable jail conditions, and life without her. The intention was solidified by the perpetrator’s minimization of the abuse, and the couple invoking images of life without each other.
Once the victim arrived at her decision to recant, the couple constructed the recantation plan by redefining the abuse event to protect the perpetrator, blaming the State for the couple’s separation, and exchanging specific instructions on what should be said or done.
There is no pretence that this study has discovered what happens in all cases, or even if these are common factors, but what it has done is shown how this works for the people being studied.
This is massively useful information. If you’re a scientist, suddenly you have a whole bunch of hypotheses to test that are drawn from real-life situations. If you’re not, you understand one instance of this situation in a lot more detail.
The reason that human psychology can be studied both scientifically and non-scientifically is that the object of study can be objectively observed and can describe their own subjective experience.
This doesn’t happen with electrical impulses, enzymes or subatomic particles.
I’m a neuropsychologist by trade, perhaps the most clearly scientific of the psychological disciplines, but I’m not going to pretend that qualitative research psychologists aren’t doing important work that makes psychology more valuable, not less.
So psychology is not just a science, and is better off for it.
Oh yeah, and the drunk guy at the party? He’s like someone who thinks a screaming orgasm is only a drink. I’m laughing at you chump, not with you.