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Do we need noise to keep the brain productive

mattiethomass profile image mattiethomass ・5 min read

At first glance, it seems that extraneous sounds and intellectual work are incompatible. However, moderate noise can still increase productivity, while complete silence is something of an ordeal that can drive you crazy. Below is a discussion of where the line is drawn when noise becomes annoying and distracting.

Work gets better when it's noisy.

Back in 2012, a group of American and Canadian scientists came to the conclusion that moderate background noise promotes creative thinking, as a person falls into a state of "distracted concentration". The experts set up a series of experiments on students at the University of British Columbia. The students had to solve association tests, which are used to assess convergent thinking, by listening to a recording with road noise and sounds of a distant construction site. The volume was adjusted from 50 to 85 dB. It turned out that moderate noise of 70dB (which is the level of a loud conversation) helps to perform better on creative tasks.

Not only noise can have a positive impact on productivity, but also, of course, music of different genres like royalty free trailer music. In 2018, the American company Accountemps surveyed a thousand office workers. About 70% of respondents said that music makes them more productive. What is interesting, research in this direction was conducted back in 1972. At that time, two professors from Birmingham University confirmed that listening to music in the background improves concentration. They conducted an experiment in a factory where students were looking for defective parts on an assembly line. They did it both in complete silence and with music - in the second case the quality of work was higher.

However, it is believed that the positive results of this experiment are since the music and silence sessions alternated. Therefore, it is difficult to argue that noise or music is guaranteed to increase productivity. Other studies have also pointed to the ambiguity of the findings.

It's not that simple.

In 2019, Iranian physicians published the results of a study that found that a person's brain activity and visual and auditory attention are significantly reduced if they are regularly exposed to noise levels of 95 dB. According to the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, this kind of noise also affects health by increasing stress levels and exacerbating related conditions: hypertension, migraines, and heart disease.

Around the same time, a group of scientists from Lancaster University showed that music can also harm concentration. Specialists have set up an experiment - participants were asked to solve several problems on the association. In parallel, they listened to songs in different languages and melodies without words. Results were compared with work in silence and with a little noise. As a result, the music slowed down the process of solving.

The polar results are probably because people listened to different sounds and performed different tasks. Therefore, in some cases, background noise increases productivity, while in others it decreases it. Personal attitudes towards noise also affect results. Some people just like working in cafes or listening to loud music, others are distracted by noisy noises. But what most experts agree is that complete silence can be detrimental.

What are the dangers of complete silence?

There is always a minimum amount of noise in the human environment, be it the ticking of the clock, the wind, or the rustling of pets. But it is possible to try to eliminate these sounds - for example, with the help of a special room. Such a room has just been built at the Orfield Laboratory in Minnesota. It is an anechoic room, the walls of which absorb 99.99% of sounds. Being in it often causes acoustic and even visual hallucinations - for example, in the form of light flashes.

The average person does not endure such conditions for longer than 45 minutes. Therefore, absolute silence is not suitable for productive work, this is a fact.

If a delicate noise is still needed

For those who don't like working in silence, there are audio services that generate background noise. One of them is myNoise. Provides many soundscapes like birdsong or office hum. Café lovers can take advantage of the Hipstersound app. With it, you can immerse yourself in the atmosphere of a Texas café or a quiet European restaurant. There are other options for acoustic accompaniment, but they can be paid for.

Rainyscope is often recommended to lovers of nature sounds - it has rain, thunder, and blizzard noise. More options are offered by Noisli with ready-made playlists and audio samples that can be mixed in any combination. The service costs ten dollars a month, but sixteen audio themes are available for free, including the crackle of a fire, the clatter of train wheels. Finally, playlists with pleasant sounds are available on streaming services.

Do you use similar applications while working, listening to music, or prefer to work in silence? Tell us in the comments.


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