Keeping your brain on task, since silence isn't always golden

Many folks struggle to keep their brains focused on the task at hand. But a recent study explains that despite conventional wisdom, a little bit of background noise might be good for the brain.

Whether we’re trying to focus on a project at work or study for an upcoming exam, conventional wisdom would tell us that we need peace and quiet to focus.

But according to Scott Bea, PsyD, of Cleveland Clinic, our brains sometimes work best with just the right amount of ambient noise, especially if we’re working on a creative task.

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“There’s a real sweet spot – particularly if you’re talking about creative tasks,” said Dr. Bea. “If you’re a writer, or maybe drawing, some amount of background noise actually affects our brain in a way that allows us to think more abstractly.”

For those who struggle to stay on task, Dr. Bea said it’s worth trying to add a little background noise.

“They call it a distracted focus. It’s distracting enough, but it’s not drawing in all your attention,” he said.

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Research has shown that a moderate amount of background noise – around 70 decibels – is ideal for keeping us focused on creative tasks. Seventy decibels is about the equivalent of the sound of a piano.

Dr. Bea said this is the reason that many people choose to work on creative projects in coffee shops with ambient noise.

He said when it’s too quiet, we can often get disrupted by our own thoughts. Adding the right amount of background noise can keep us just focused enough that we’re not interrupted by those thoughts that take us off task.

“There are a lot of people who will use music or background noise, partly to keep their thoughts at bay; the intrusive thoughts, the thoughts of tension; even thinking about the exam that you might be studying for,” said Dr. Bea.

But he added that it’s important that the noise doesn’t get too loud. Once you reach about 80 decibels – equivalent to the sound of a telephone dial tone – it can actually make it more difficult for the brain to process it all.

“If it gets too noisy – it just completely shuts us down,” said Dr. Bea. “It prevents us from processing information, it becomes overwhelming or too distracting but if the sound is too soft, also, it doesn’t set our brains up for that abstract thinking.”

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Dr. Bea said using background noise to aid concentration really comes down to trial and error, because all brains are different.

“Find what works for you – find an environment, run some of your own experiments,” he said. “It might be that your brain works slightly differently, but it’s a nice brain experiment to find out what works.”

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