Have you ever been trying to complete a simple task and found that background noise is preventing you from thinking straight? The general noises of everyday life can disturb us when we’re trying to work or think because, for most people, our brain functions better in silence.
We seldom have a silent moment due to the noise of everyday life. Although you may think it’s quiet now, the odds are there will still be background noise, if you think about it.
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Maybe it’s the refrigerator humming, an ambulance siren in the distance, or the buzz of traffic going past your house. It could be the gentle whirring of a fan, a dripping tap or the clickety-click of a computer keyboard. We seldom experience total silence – so if we did, it would come as quite a shock!
Yet according to new research, silence is one of the most unappreciated tools that can aid productivity and creativity.
Effects of noise
We all know that continual noise from a building site, or the jarring sound of hammering or drilling, can be both annoying and damaging to our hearing, but did you know even a small amount of noise can impair our wellbeing?
The distractions of general noise all around us, including conversations or telephones ringing in the workplace, can be detrimental to productivity. The problems can be greater when you work in an open-plan environment.
Psychologists say open-plan offices make workers feel like noise and interruptions are inevitable. They become the norm. We acclimatise, not recognising when the noise has become excessive because it’s a normal part of our day.
A study by the University of California revealed workers, on average, had periods of only 11 minutes at a time in between noise interruptions – creating just about the worst environment if you need to focus.
What is white noise?
The theory of “white noise” was first noted in the late 19th century by scientists such as Thomas Edison. It refers to a combination of various frequencies that our ears hear and recognise as a sound. The resulting noise contains several frequencies with equal intensities.
It was called “white noise” as a result of earlier research relating to electricity when the term “white light” was coined to describe the illumination created by a combination of different colours. It followed that a combination of different frequencies became white noise.
We can often hear white noise around us without even noticing. It has many different forms: for example, the distant buzz from a stadium where thousands of sports fans are enjoying an event can be deemed white noise, as can the sound of heavy rainfall on your roof and window panes.
It’s the sound of static in the pre-digital TV era, when the channels had gone off the air and the television was left on, leaving just a “snowy” screen and a hissing sound.
Helpful or harmful?
There has been plenty of research into the effects of white noise on our brain over the past 50 years. While some studies suggest it can help to mask the sounds of tinnitus (ringing in the ears), other studies have concluded it can have damaging effects.
A study in 2018, carried out by researchers at the University of California, concluded that the background buzz of white noise could have a detrimental effect on our central auditory system.
The research suggested continued exposure to noise levels of between 60 dB and 70 dB (currently considered safe) could affect the central auditory nervous system in a way that may lead to tinnitus.
The study concludes that exposure to white noise can lead to a reduction in the brain’s neural inhibition – meaning it loses its ability to filter unimportant information. It can also lengthen the amount of time required for the brain to process changing signals.
Why does our brain need silence?
Research suggests our brain is never truly quiet, as it continues to work even when we’re not consciously carrying out an activity. Background noise and a lack of quiet makes it almost impossible for our brain to create anything valuable.
Shutting out noise can help us to focus better and become more creative. Silence will actually give your brain a rest. Researchers have carried out experiments into the effects of sound and silence on our brain.
In one experiment investigating the effects of different kinds of music, it was found that the period of silence between each music clip was more relaxing than the gentle music itself! The effects of the silence contrasted with the noise, heightening its benefits.
Research shows that when our brain isn’t bombarded by noise, it can grow new cells. One study suggested that sitting in perfect silence for two hours a day spurred new brain cell growth.
This means complete silence enables the brain to return to its “normal” state, with the cells growing in an area called the “hippocampus”, which relates to our memory skills. The study suggested the cells had become functioning neurons.
Benefits of silence
Experiencing complete silence can be beneficial in other ways, such as improving our creative thinking and decision-making skills, according to psychologist Jonathan Smallwood. He says sitting in silence enables us to create more innovative solutions to problems, eventually reaching our goals.
Scientists believe finding a small pocket of silence in your busy schedule is important because it helps you to develop a set of skills that will enable you to achieve success.
This philosophy is starting to be recognised in the business world, with some companies launching “quiet time”. This is a period when staff agree to sit quietly and get certain tasks done, even if they may not feel like it, setting aside a specific period when there’s no talking or interacting.
A study showed that over a period of four years, this made employees 23% more productive. Choosing silence and introducing a period of controlled “quiet time” in the workplace can actually work.
Finding a calm space for yourself and sitting in silence can help you to think and improve your brain’s function. Even small doses of silence can help rejuvenate your brain, so it’s worth remembering this in your day-to-day life.
When you’re seeking silence, Sound Planning can provide a wide range of noise control services and products. As experienced acoustic consultants, we offer our services throughout the UK. Please contact us to find out more about our bespoke solutions.