Have you ever wondered why you find the sound of raindrops relaxing, or why some background sounds can help you concentrate?
It’s all about how your brain gets distracted, and how certain sounds can prevent this.
You might well have heard of white noise before. It sounds a bit like static you used to get on old TVs or radios when they weren’t tuned in to a channel (a joy many of my millenial followers will never have experienced).
In the video above, we learn about white noise and it’s more pleasant cousins, pink noise and brown noise.
The reason this sound is called “white” noise is that it is a collection of random frequencies of sounds all mixed together, just like if you mix all colours of light you get “white” light. An example of white noise is provided here:
Many people claim that having a noise like this in the background can help them concentrate (a 1972 study also backs up the idea that background music increases productivity), and there are even apps and dedicated machines which produce sounds like this to help people work or fall asleep. But many people also say they find white noise painful to listen to.
How white noise (and other background sounds) help concentration
Your brain is a finely tuned machine when it comes to concentration. It is perhaps the most advanced object in the universe, able to combine abstract ideas into something more new and creative.
However, behind the advanced parts of the human brain (the neocortex) which control our conscious thought, are the more ancient part of the brain which control basic functions, such as the limbic system (memory, learning, emotions) and the oldest part like the “reptilian brain”, the basal ganglia (motivation, eye movement).
What is important to remember here is that the most ancient parts of the brain evolved to keep us alive and safe, and therefore can override the more advanced areas, such as when you are concentrating on something. Problematically, this part of the brain is very easily distracted when it notices something change, especially visually or a noise, as the brain needs to quickly assess whether it could be a threat.
This is why it is so easy to become distracted while working on a creative project.
Every new alert you get, whether it is an email notification, facebook update or SMS message buzz in your pocket tells the brain:
This is a change in the surroundings and needs my attention NOW!
In fact, a lot has been written in recent years about how open plan offices are showing to be bad for productivity, because people simply can’t prevent distractions and focus on their work.
Why white noise isn’t the best solution
In fact, the word noise is a derivative of the latin word for nausea, so it makes sense that noise is described as unpleasant.
The reason for this pain is that white noise takes a random combination of sound frequencies. However, sound frequencies don’t increase incrementally, but rather they double for every octave a pitch increases. This results in twice as many new higher frequency (higher pitched) sounds available for the random list every time you increase by an octave. This results in a much higher likelihood of more high pitched frequency sounds in the random white noise, making the overall pitch seem higher. The video at the top of this page explains it well.
Combined with the fact that human hearing is more sensitive to higher pitched sounds means that this white noise can feel rather uncomfortable.
If you want something more pleasant to listen to, you could try pink noise, which you can listen to here:
Even more tuned for human hearing is a tone called the brown noise, as shown below: