Buzzing, dinging, honking, chattering, the rustle of wind, the sound of rainfall — these types of sounds can either collectively spell white noise — or major distraction.
“For many people, especially solo-preneurs, white noise is the heartbeat of productivity,” says Bob Clary, director of marketing at DevelopIntelligence, a technical learning solutions provider. “For me, I often go to the coffee shop to work when I need to be around other people and feel the energy that is lacking by myself at home. It’s definitely not for everyone — many still need a traditional office or cubicle to get in the mindset of working.”
But researchers have found a moderate amount of ambient white noise boosts creativity. There are even applications for it. No wonder some people love to work in public.
How Much White Noise Is Too Much?
A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research examined how ambient noise affects creativity. Researchers found that a moderate level of white noise — 70 dB — enhanced creative tasks. However, when the level rose to 85 dB, it hurt creativity. It seems the moderate level improves imagination, whereas a higher level of noise thwarts information processing — tanking your creative mojo.
The study observed people working in 50, 70 and 85 dB noise levels and found those working in the moderate range perform best.
White noise operates on a similar paradigm as the Mozart effect — the theory that certain music, namely classical, spurs one’s ability to solve abstract problems or improve creative flow. With music, science has shown that a moderate tempo without quick changes or lyrics works best. When the brain fixates on patterns it recognizes, and music stops becoming white noise, it can turn into a distraction.
How White Noise Works
White noise, like the hum of a plane engine or the quiet murmur of chatting passengers, is quickly filtered by the brain into ambient noise. You might not even notice it. White noise also helps to make other sounds less distracting.
Many people now sleep, work and walk to music or white noise, like wind, water, insects or rain in hopes to drown out distracting noises around them. You can find white noise to soothe babies, settle pets or help you concentrate.
A 2014 study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found playing white noise helps memory and improves learning in distracting environments, which is why it may be effective in heightening productivity.
If you want to know if white noise helps or hinders your work, try a moderate decibel — the sounds of New York City traffic, which can clock in at decibels up to 95 dB, render it distracting. Try working to the drone of the airport terminal or the chatter in a hotel lobby.
“A public space like a park, or one of the growing network of co-working spaces around the country are great places to get your noise ‘fix,'” Clary says.
White Noise Apps
Stuck in the office or working from your hotel room? Try one of these white noise apps perfect for day of accomplishing more:
Coffitivity (Android and iPhone) recreates the sound of a coffee shop with different vibes like morning murmur or the lunchtime bustle. (Free)
Noisli (Android and iPhone) is an ambient sound generator that lets you layer as many sounds as you like to create your own white noise. Choose among sounds including café, nature and conversation. ($1.99)
Brain FM (online and iPhone) offers focus, relax or sleep modes geared to improve mental focus within 15 minutes. (Free)