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Do we have a bat signal for Paul Simon?

In a new paper, a team of philosophers and psychologists at Johns Hopkins University claims to have finally settled an ancient debate: whether you can actually hear the sound of silence.

In a mind-bending conclusion, they found that you absolutely can.

"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 the study's lead author, Johns Hopkins graduate student in philosophy and psychology Rui Zhe Goh. "Surprisingly, what our work suggests is that nothing is also something you can hear."

Per the study, published Monday in the journal PNAS, researchers utilized established auditory trickery, such as the one-is-more illusion, to conduct the experiment. But in the middle of these tests, the researchers added a twist: they periodically subbed noise for pure nothingness, then measured whether particpants' brains would react the same way they would to conventional — noisy, that is — sound illusions.

"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 study co-author Chaz Firestone, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences and the director of 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," he added, "then that may be evidence that we literally hear silence after all."

Ultimately, 1,000 participants were assessed across seven different tests. Fascinatingly, the researchers were able to determine that across all tests, participants' brains reacted the same way to silence as they did to noise — a result that seemingly suggests that, yes, we hear silence, even if we're really hearing nothing at all.

"We show that silences can 'substitute' for sounds in event-based auditory illusions," reads the study. "Seven experiments introduce three 'silence illusions,' adapted from perceptual illusions previously thought to arise only with sounds."

"In all cases," it continues, "silences elicited temporal distortions perfectly analogous to their sound-based counterparts, suggesting that auditory processing treats moments of silence the way it treats sounds. Silence is truly perceived, not merely inferred."

"The kinds of illusions and effects that look like they are unique to the auditory processing of a sound, we also get them with silences," added study co-author Ian Phillips, a John Hopkins philosopher and psychologist, "suggesting we really do hear absences of sound too."

If there's any caveat to the results, it's that the silences that the Johns Hopkins researchers prompted participants with were embedded into various soundscapes.

Still, the results of the experiment are compelling, especially considering the weight and history of the argument itself. In any case, just know: if your words, like silent raindrops, ever echo in any wells of silence, that's just the sounds of silence.

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