The perception of silence

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 120 (29):e2301463120 (2023)
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Auditory perception is traditionally conceived as the perception of sounds — a friend’s voice, a clap of thunder, a minor chord. However, daily life also seems to present us with experiences characterized by the absence of sound — a moment of silence, a gap between thunderclaps, the hush after a musical performance. In these cases, do we positively hear silence? Or do we just fail to hear, and merely judge or infer that it is silent? This longstanding question remains controversial in both the philosophy and science of perception, with prominent theories holding that sounds are the only objects of auditory experience and thus that our encounter with silence is cognitive, not perceptual. However, this debate has largely remained theoretical, without a key empirical test. Here, we introduce a novel empirical approach, presenting experimental evidence that silence can be genuinely perceived (not just cognitively inferred). We ask whether silences can ‘substitute’ for sounds in event-based auditory illusions — empirical signatures of auditory event representation in which auditory events distort perceived duration. Seven experiments introduce three new ‘silence illusions’ — the one-silence-is-more illusion, silence-based warping, and the oddball-silence illusion — each adapted from a prominent perceptual illusion previously thought to arise only from sounds. Subjects were immersed in ambient noise interrupted by silences structurally identical to the sounds in the original illusions. In all cases, silences elicited temporal distortions perfectly analogous to the illusions produced by sounds. Our results suggest that silence is truly heard, not merely inferred, introducing a general approach for studying absence perception.



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Author Profiles

Ian Phillips
Johns Hopkins University
Chaz Firestone
Johns Hopkins University

Citations of this work

The Auditory Field: The Spatial Character of Auditory Experience.Keith A. Wilson - 2023 - Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy 9 (40):1080-1106.

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