Background Noise: Harmful or Helpful?

March 2, 2022
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Background Noise: Harmful or Helpful?
Cole Fowler
March 2, 2022

Countless companies promise us noise-canceling headphones.

Countless apps offer ambient audio tracks and music tracks to listen to while working.

So which is it?

Is it better to work in sound or silence? And is the answer different depending on the person and the task?

 

The Psychological Effect of Noise

 

According to The Los Angeles Times working from home during the pandemic has left many workers feeling isolated. This is in large part due to a lack of ambient office noise. These ambient office noises, although mundane, gave a feeling of life and community beyond oneself. They helped workers feel oriented and situated.  One expert theorizes we find background noise comforting on a primal level. Animals in the forest usually quiet when a predator is near, so to our reptilian brain, silence can mean danger. Hearing the everyday sounds of our surroundings can assure us we are in a safe environment. In fact, during the pandemic, workers accustomed to the background noise of an open office have sought out “office noise” tracks to help them focus. Surprisingly, listening to ambient tracks of computer keys, fax machines, and distant conversation has become just as popular as listening to rainstorms, nature sounds, and focus music.

 

On the other hand, background noise at higher levels can have harmful psychological effects. Ambient noise can increase general stress levels and induce stress-related conditions like high blood pressure, peptic ulcers, and migraine headaches. According to Scientific American, stress resulting from ongoing white noise causes the release of cortisol. Excessive levels of cortisol in the brain can impair planning, reasoning, and impulse control, and may also disrupt learning and memory.

 

Personality Differences

 

Turns out introverts have a harder time focusing with background noise. A study showed they performed worse on reading comprehension tests, memory exams, and math exercises when music and office noise filled the background. These introverts claimed they felt “pressured” or “annoyed” by the background sounds. They reported wanting to perform mental tasks in silence, as to not expend unnecessary psychological energy.  

 

On the other hand, extroverts in the study performed just as well on the tests while hearing music and office noises as they did with silence. It seems environmental noises do not have the same negative effect on extroverts’ ability to concentrate.

 

Experts point to the fact that introverts’ and extroverts’ brains are structured differently. In an introvert’s mind, noise diverts the mental resources responsible for memory recall and problem-solving. Background noise makes them feel distracted. In an extrovert’s mind, the blood flow to these regions appears comparatively lower. Extroverts might have weaker memory and problem-solving abilities, however they are at an advantage in any environment with distractions. In fact, some extroverts prefer working in environments with noise and find silence itself distracting. Notably, individuals with ADHD have been found to perform better on memory tests when in a noisier environment.

 

Task Differences

 

Background noise’s effect on productivity and performance also varies depending on the job at hand. Research shows people in moderately noisy environments perform better at creative tasks. The moderate noise helps people think in a broader, more imaginative way. 

 

Tasks such as brainstorming or conception creation thrive in a moderately noisy environment, such as a coffee shop or office bullpen. Tasks that require deep focus, such as writing, editing, or coding, meanwhile are better suited to quiet environments, such as a private room or office.

 

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign conducted experiments with noise levels’ effects on creativity. Participants were asked to brainstorm as many unique uses for a brick as they could imagine, for example as a door stop, a paper weight, etc. When participants brainstormed listening to low noise, they tended to be less imaginative than when they listened to moderate noise. Then, with high noise, the participants’ thinking got so strained the creativity boost went away. It seems a moderate, “just right” noise level helps spur outside-the-box thinking. 

 

Tips for the Office

 

One analysis of over 200 studies found the biggest sound distraction is intermittent speech, when you hear pieces of conversation with gaps in between. Intermittent speech is often heard in offices and is more distracting than continuous speech or non-speech noises. Included in this category are what have been coined “halfalogs,” hearing only one half of a coworker’s conversation. Intermittent speech and “halfalogs” are more distracting than hearing whole conversations because your brain can’t predict when the voice you’re hearing will start and stop. 

 

A National Research Council paper found “speech privacy” has a huge effect on employees’ levels of comfort and productivity. Employees find it harder to focus when they hear coworkers’ conversations. Likewise, they feel less at ease when they think their conversations are heard by everyone across the office. Through a variety of sound-masking products, companies are attempting to increase “speech privacy” for their employees. 

 

What Background Noise Means for the Office

 

Workers need access to a range of sonic environments. Employees working from home might struggle to find a quiet place due to noisy partners, children, pets, and roommates. Other employees working from home might find themselves in an environment that’s uncomfortably quiet. The hybrid office gives employees flexibility and allows them to select the location most conducive to them, based on their personality, home environment, and the tasks at hand. OfficeTogether takes the guesswork out of the hybrid office and helps companies maximize productivity. 


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