Sunday 30 March 2014

Work | Boosting creativity and productivity with background noise

This is a small deviation from the usual theme for my work posts, although it is in the same vein. You see, I've discovered the benefits of ambient background noise for increasing productivity and/or creativity. In this blog post, I introduce two websites (Coffitivity and MyNoise) that I regularly use to 'get in the zone' (in fact, I'm listening to one now).

Listening to music when doing a task like data collecting or something similar is well and good, but when I am writing I cannot focus if the music is anything other than instrumental. And sometimes, even that is too distracting. But then, so is complete silence or even other office/university related noises such as people talking, phones ringing or the sound of someone hammering away on a keyboard. Cue ambient noise and sound masking! 

Coffitivity and the science of noise-induced creativity

I first came across Coffitivity last autumn. Sharing an office with two other people, I found it very helpful to listen to the ambient noise on this website through my headphones. Coffitivity plays a continuous loop of ambient coffee shop (not the Amsterdam kind) sounds. They also have a loop with campus cafe and lunch room ambiance.

This website actually came to be because of a research article showing that moderate background noise can enhance creativity:

Using background noise that is commonly present in consumers' lives (in this case, ambient noise in a roadside restaurant), we show that while a moderate level of background noise enhances creativity relative to a low noise level, a rather high level of noise impairs creativity. (1)

Why is this? Well:

Process measures reveal that a moderate (vs. low) level of noise increases processing difficulty, inducing a higher construal level and thus promoting abstract processing, which subsequently leads to higher creativity. (1)

You can find the article here. In other words, the ambient noise disturbs our thinking just enough that we are enter a more creative state of mind (construal level). There was also evidence, however, that if you already have a very low level of creativity, the background noise will not do much for you. Also, a high level of noise works counter actively.

I generally use Coffitivy when I need to be creative, so I suppose a few of the play post here have had it running in the background! 


MyNoise and sound masking

Ever since I discovered Coffitivity, I've been a big fan of using background ambiance to create a uniform, non-disturbing background noise. And a few months ago, I discovered another website with a slightly different approach.

MyNoise is created by Belgian signal processing engineer St├ęphane Pigeon. It features a surprisingly large number of background soundscapes (each with several sub-categories) that can mask out undesirable noises. How does it work?

Noise blockers usually use white noise, a continuum of frequencies equally distributed over the whole hearing range, which will mask the other noises in the room. This website introduces the concept of frequency-shaped noises, focusing on the frequencies one wants to effectively block. (2)

In other words, if the background noise has the same frequency as the undesirable sound, it will mask out that sound. This is therefore suitable not only for blocking out noise at the office or while studying, but also for relaxation and meditation, and even to treat or alleviate insomnia, tinnitus, ADHD or other conditions.

MyNoise even allows you to calibrate the output to suit your hearing. It will remember this (through cookies) and you can apply it to any soundscape you're listening to. You can manipulate the sliders to set each frequency to your desire, and even animate them to change slightly over time. Some of the sounds are only available through a small donation, though.

There is a lot discover on the site. It has landscapes ranging from simple White Noise and Waterfall Noise (which led me to the site in the first place) to more intricate ones such as Tibetan Choir, A Trip of the Mind, and Sailboat. Oh, and Cat Purr. How's that for soothing?

My favourites? Waterfall Noise, Three Friends, Fire Noise (for cold days), and Flying Fortress.

Give these sites a try next time you feel the need for a boost of creativity or when your co-worker/student/roommate is disturbing your productivity. And yes, both Coffitivity and MyNoise have apps (MyNoise apparently coming soon Edit: MyNoise app now available).

By the way, this seems like shameless advertising, but I am not affiliated with either Coffitivty or MyNoise and have not been asked to write this, I just like them.



(1)  Mehta, Ravi, Rui (Juliet) Zhu, and Amar Cheema. 2012. Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 39, No. 4, pp. 784-799. <<>>.

(2) Pigeon, St├ęphane. 2013-2014. <<>>.

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