Illustration: Jenn Kwon

Turn It Up: How the Right Amount of Ambient Noise Increases Creativity

Finding the right space to do creative work can be difficult. Inside the office, there are constant interruptions, last-minute meetings, and an often unbearable amount of noise. On the other hand, locking yourself away in quiet isolation can sometimes be just as counterproductive (not to mention boring). For most creatives there is a “Goldilocks” zone of just the right amount of noise, but not too much.

Perhaps this is why so many creatives often retreat to public spaces like coffee shops. They’ve become a virtual second office to so many. Specifically, settings like coffee shops contain the right level of ambient noise that just happens to trigger our minds to think more creatively. A paper published late last year in the Journal of Consumer Research, argues that the ideal work environment for creative projects should contain a little bit of background noise. A team of researchers, led by Ravi Mehta at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign tested the effects of varying levels of noise on participants’ creative thinking skills.

Specifically, they separated the participants into four groups and asked all four groups to complete a Remote Associates Test, a commonly used test of creative thinking that asks test-takers to find the relationship between a series of words that appear unrelated. Each of the groups was subjected to a different level of background noise (50 decibels, 70 decibels, 85 decibels, and total silence). When they scored each person’s test, the researchers found that those in the 70 decibel group, exposed to a moderate level of ambient noise, significantly out-performed those in the other three groups. The background noise boosted their creative thinking.

Researchers found that those exposed to a moderate level of ambient noise significantly out-performed those in the other groups.

Background noise creates a distraction, but balance is key. A moderate level of background noise creates just enough distraction to break people out of their patterns of thinking and nudge them to let their imagination wander, while still keeping them from losing their focus on the project all together. This distracted focus helps enhance your creativity. The study’s authors explain that “getting into a relatively noisy environment may trigger the brain to think abstractly, and thus generate creative ideas.”

But what if you aren’t free to roam to coffee shops and hotel lobbies in search of distracted focus? What if you need to re-create the coffee shop environment inside your cubicle or office? Luckily there are several virtual options available:

Coffitivity — Inspired by the research, Justin Kaulzer created a free online app that plays a continuous loop of coffee shop noise. The program includes noises from conversations, as well as the sounds of brewing and serving coffee. It even includes a function to mimic headphones in a coffee shop by letting you adjust the volume levels of your computer’s music player and the coffee shop sounds separately.

Ambient Mixer — A white noise machine on steroids, Ambient Mixer features a host of traditional loops heard on white noise machines and iPhone apps. However, it takes those a step further and allows you to combine sounds, adjust noise levels, mix your background noise tracks, and share your creations with others.

99U Music Mixes — If you’re too used to your iTunes tracks or Pandora stations to let them be background noise, try these playlists: Each one is curated around a different theme for easy selection based on where you are and what you need to get done.

Focus@Will Based on the idea that background music should be interesting, but not too interesting, Focus@Will plays ambient music in phases sequenced to follow your natural attention span. The app includes a timer so you can set scheduled blocks of time to work.

Brian Eno’s Music for Airports [Spotify] [iTunes] — Released in 1978, this album is still considered one of the best ambient music recordings ever. Originally conceived of during a long layover in a European airport as a way to tolerate that level of boredom, Eno’s recording was actually played inside New York’s LaGuardia Airport for a brief time. Thankfully, it made the jump to mp3 and can now be used everywhere, even inside a coffee shop.

Raining.fm — Keep it simple with the original ambient noise: rain. Raining.fm does just what it says on the tin and even allows you to increase the amount of thunder.

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Regardless of what method you choose, the trick is to make sure you’re exposed to only a moderate level of background noise. Let your mind wander, but not too far, and take advantage of the creative boost of distracted focus.

How about you?

What are your favorite sites and apps to provide you with just the right amount of background noise?

More insights on: Focus

David Burkus

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David Burkus is assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on creativity, entrepreneurship, and organizational behavior. He is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas.
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