Neuro-Tech,
34 MINS

#151: Can White Noise Help You Focus?

October 21, 2016

Let’s say you really need to focus and get some work done.  Where do you go?  The library?  A busy coffee shop?

You probably have an idea of where you work best, but now there’s science to back you up.  New research from Dr. Sverker Sikström, Professor and Chair of the Cognitive Division of the Department of Psychology at Lund University, shows that noisy environments are best for concentration, but only for certain people.

White Noise and Attention

You might think that working in a noisy environment would be distracting.  But it turns out that for people who have a hard time focusing, loud, white background noise actually improves attention by 10-20%.

Dr. Sikström and his colleagues tested recall performance (asking people to memorize a list of words) in both silent environments and with white noise in the background.

For people who had self-rated difficulty sustaining attention, being exposed to white noise improved their performance.  But there were no benefits from white noise for people who didn’t usually have a problem concentrating.

Another counterintuitive finding:  the white noise the researchers played was loud, like vacuum cleaner loud (80 decibels). When the white noise was played below 70 decibels, the benefit diminished.  Whether louder white noise would be even more beneficial isn’t known.

One theory as to why louder is better rests on the fact that memory performance happens in brain areas totally distinct from where detecting noises happens.  So, in order for the noise to “push” into memory areas, it needs to loud.

What Is White Noise?

Unlike other types of noise, white noise does not focus the listener’s attention onto something in particular.  It’s a steady, continuous background pattern of noise, where nothing stands out.

Think:  randomly honking horns vs. regularly crashing waves.

And white isn’t the only color of noise.  There’s everything from brown to pink to gray noise.

The difference between the colors is based on volume at different frequencies.  White noise has the same level of loudness regardless of frequency.  The other colors get louder at higher or lower frequencies.

Using White Noise For Better Focus

If you don’t have any problems focusing, white noise isn’t likely to help you.  Same goes if you’re hyperactive, but not inattentive.

But, if you do have difficulty concentrating, there’s an app for that.

Dr. Sikström developed the Smart Noise app, which play white noise and also test whether you actually benefit from white noise.  Unfortunately, it’s only in Swedish at the moment.

For English speakers, there’s MyNoise, a free iTunes app that will generate different types of white noise (rain, bells, and spring are just a few of the options).

Happy focusing!

PS:  For more on how to get your best brain, join our weekly Brain Breakfast!

Show Notes
  • 00:00:22

    White noise and its cognitive benefits

  • 00:01:27

    This Week in Neuroscience: How animals are adapting to cope with their noisiest neighbours – humans

  • 00:05:20

    The audience interaction section

  • 00:07:11

    What is white noise?

  • 00:08:30

    Intro to Dr. Sverker Sikström

  • 00:09:00

    How Dr. Sikström 's research began

  • 00:11:51

    The differences between types of noise

  • 00:12:20

    Do humans and animals hear different noises?

  • 00:12:49

    The effect of a noisy environment on cognition

  • 00:14:25

    Anxiety and noise

  • 00:16:05

    Attention and noise levels

  • 00:17:39

    Types of tests in Dr. Sikström 's noise research and the Smart Noise app

  • 00:18:18

    Self-assessing if noise will work for you

  • 00:19:28

    Potential follow-ups to Dr. Sikström 's research

  • 00:21:06

    The increase in attentiveness and mechanism of action theory

  • 00:24:24

    What variables were tested for?

  • 00:28:20

    Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: Cocaine Accumulation in Fish Eyes

2 comments

  1. ben says:

    I wonder if the improvements start to disappear after prolonged use and/or if those that find it helpful, then have even more difficulty focusing when they go without the noise.

    I think I’m in the hypersensitive camp… noises like dogs barking, birds singing, kids yelling, drive me absolutely insane!

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      Ben — Later this year I’m going to be getting into a super-silence chamber (technically the polar opposite of white noise, although my gut instinct tells me the effect might be similar, like far-Right and far-Left political extremism). Looking forward to comparing/contrasting the stimuli/lack-of-stimuli. (Agreed re: kids yelling!)

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