How Ambient Noise, the OG Productivity Trick, Helps Human Brains Focus on Work

What distracts us from our work isn’t sound itself: It’s our engagement with it.

In a quiet office, the tiniest sound — the sharp creak of a chair; the buzz of a phone — can be as distracting as Drake’s latest droppings blaring from a cranked-up Sonos. As we turn to science to find ways to make ourselves work faster and better, one message is coming across loud and clear: Silence is just as distracting as noise. For years, we’ve debated whether or not we should listen to music while working; now, we’re realizing it was the wrong question to ask. Tired of swinging between aural tranquility and tumult, the headphones and white collar set has settled on ambient sound, which aims for the sweet, unintelligible spot in between.

The trick to balancing sound and silence, it seems, is to create noise we don’t really hear. The “augmented sound” iPhone app Hear, released this week, takes sound from the real world and runs it through a series of processing filters before feeding it, through headphones, into your ears. The end result is still sound — but customized to suit your aural needs. The “Office” filter, in particular, promises to help you “detach yourself and focus” when you have trouble concentrating. It does this by scrambling the sequence in which you hear ambient noise, thus turning familiar sounds into an auditory experience you can’t recognize. The resulting soundscape is, at first, a bit unnerving (making sense of speech becomes impossible because the syntax is all wrong) but that unintelligibility is the entire point. What distracts us from our work isn’t sounds, it’s whether or not we can ignore them.

For similar reasons, we tend to be more productive in a bustling café or communal workspace than in a silent office. The noise in these environments is mostly background — the simultaneous conversations we overhear blend together into an unintelligible hum so there are fewer opportunities for our brain to jump in and engage. The soundscape-supplying website Hipster Sound, much like RainyMood before it, is built on this premise, allowing users to stream the sounds of the “charming ambience of Paris cafés” or the “bustling vibe of a Rio de Janeiro family restaurant” as background noise to boost concentration. The clatter of silverware and murmur of French over sips of café au lait is noisy but not intrusive. Again, the streaming sounds give us little opportunity to engage intellectually or emotionally.

This is why the debate over whether music can boost productivity has been so contentious. Music, though it’s been shown to be useful in enhancing certain cognitive tasks, can be distracting because of its emotional pull. The company focus@will, which produces music “scientifically optimized to boost concentration and focus,” makes it a point to compose songs that don’t induce an emotional response, aiming, instead, to balance musical novelty and repetition so listeners don’t get bored. The point is to engage them, but not too much — just enough to keep them from falling asleep.

The scientific underpinnings of this idea were explored in 2014 by psychologists publishing in the journal Scientific Reports, who took the long-running debate over whether listening to music while working boosted productivity and reframed it, asking: what about listening to music makes us more or less productive? In the study, in which participants listened to songs as they went through an MRI scanner, the researchers didn’t focus on the absence or presence of music; they focused on whether or not the participants engaged with it. As it turns out, when participants listened to music that they actively liked, the part of their brain involved in daydreaming, the default mode network, was more active. Listening to a favorite song, they suggested, could bring back emotionally laden — and potentially very distracting — autobiographic and episodic memories, at least more so than less familiar music.

This premise may also underline the reason why silence is so distracting. In a quiet room, we don’t overhear murmurs, we hear entire conversations. A 2014 survey of 689 employees from various companies, carried out by the “sound masking” firm Cambridge Sound Management, noted that nearly half of the participants reported that overheard speech was the most disturbing source of noise in the workplace. Again, distraction is not as much about sound as it is about engagement.

This is not to say that all workplaces should install white sound generators and adopt strict no-headphones policies. Humans are equipped to work but not to do so without pause. Sometimes you need to mentally engage with Drake and sometimes you want to jump into the conversations around you. Engagement — with overheard conversation or emotionally charged music — can be distracting, but distractions are needed to keep us sane.

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