The Science of Sound on Creativity & Productivity

Some co-workers find it incredulous that I have always gone downstairs to the local Starbucks when I need to get into creative mode.  I have always responded by saying, it just works for me.  The background noise and commotion acts as white noise to me and allows me to focus.  When there is a lack of background noise/movement, my brain seems to look for distractions.  Some people get it, and some people don’t.  Today I saw an article that better defines and confirms what I have always instinctively known.

From the New York Times article, “The Noisy Clatter of Traveling” on April 9, 2013

Research shows that some noise might promote creativity, said Ravi Mehta, co-author of the paper “Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition,” published by The Journal of Consumer Research in December 2012. Based on five experiments with different types and volumes of noise, Mr. Mehta and his colleagues found that a moderate level of noise — 70 decibels in contrast to a low level of 50 decibels — enhanced performance on creative tasks. But higher levels of noise, say, 85 decibels, had the opposite effect, diminishing creativity, Mr. Mehta said. “Seventy decibels is the sweet spot,” he said. What the study found was that the voices of multiple talkers in the background could enhance creativity, but a single loud voice, like one side of a cellphone conversation, could be too much distraction and interfere with the creative process.

“We want distraction but not a very high level of it,” he said. “It depends on the kind of work you are involved in. If you are looking for new ideas, it’s different than if you are filing your taxes, work that requires attention to detail.

“In the creative process, you want the creative juices to flow, you want sound,” Mr. Mehta said, adding that if you are trying to focus on highly technical material, you want quiet.


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