Background noise boosts creativity

Danny Ogranovich, Page Editor

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Junior Maddy Chemers listens to ambient noise, a form of background noise, streamed off her computer. Chemers has found that ambient noise helps her focus on her homework. Photo by Danny Ogranovich

Fatigued and running out of time, junior Maddy Chemers was almost at her breaking point. After working for six hours straight, typing out each grueling word, she could not figure out what to write for the last part of her English research paper. Suddenly, it hit her. Chemers decided to listen to ambient noise.

“It really helped me just crank out the last part that I needed to get done,” said Chemers. “When I’m listening to [ambient noise], I can get down to the core ideas.”

Juliet Zhu, professor of marketing at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, said in a phone interview that ambient noise is any kind of natural or recorded constant background sound, such as weather or white noise.

A study published by Zhu and other professionals working for the Journal of Consumer Research found that ambient noise at 70 decibels of sound, approximately the level of sound heard standing next to a highway, may contribute to heightened creativity. The study also found that any noise level below 50  and above 80 decibels will decrease creative cognition.

“We decided to go to all these different places, like cafeterias and study areas, and just recorded the [environmental] sounds,” said Zhu. “Then, we used a program, and we sort of mixed these sounds to make it sound like a restaurant. We told our participants to study and found those that listened at a certain medium volume were actually more creative.”

According to Zhu, ambient noises can increase creativity by stimulating the brain. If set to approximately 70 decibels, which she finds is about a medium volume on most phones, ambient noises stimulate the brain so that the listener thinks about problems in a new way.

“It happens a lot when you get stuck on a task and just temporarily give up,” said Zhu. “You go for a walk, take a shower or something else and then you forget about it. But you come back and suddenly you have a solution. So what is that distraction doing? It’s helping you take the time and think about it in a different way. That’s what the [ambient] noise is doing. It distracts you so that you can think about [the task] in a new way.”

Chemers said she does not pay too much specific attention to how ambient noises affect her creativity but has found they help her work better.

“When I listen to the perfect volume, I really don’t have to worry about hearing it at all,” said Chemers. “I really just focus on what I’m doing.”

Yitzhak Fried, professor of management at Texas Tech University, said in a phone interview that not all types of ambient noise are helpful.

“Sometimes people that are constantly exposed to ambient noises, especially in an industrial or construction environment where noise level isn’t necessarily that high because of regulations, actually experience some negative effects,” Fried said.

According to Zhu, she finds regular music to be ineffective because it does not just stimulate the brain but draws attention away from the task at hand.

“If [the music] is something very distracting and catches your attention, it’s like someone calling your name in a crowd,” said Zhu. “It’s hard to pay attention to anything else.”

According to junior Morgan Barrett, ambient noise can be found for free on the internet by searching “ambient noise” online. She chooses to listen to whatever is free and seems appealing. Sometimes she prefers to listen to wind chimes, but most types work for her.

“To me it’s all kind of just the same,” said Barrett. “I just look up ambient music, and they usually have a ton of different things [on YouTube].”

According to Chemers, listening to ambient noise is different for everyone. As long as the listener feels more efficient and creative, she finds many types of ambient noise can help him or her study. To her, it is all about preference.

“[I listen to] white noise and weather,” said Chemers. “But I don’t really like animals. It’s too harsh.”

Zhu said no matter which kind a listener uses, ambient noise can be helpful.

“Next time when your parents tell you to turn off all [sound], keep quiet and whatever, tell them that there is evidence suggesting otherwise,” Zhu said.

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Background noise boosts creativity