Why noise is necessary for our brains to perform at a high-level
“Noise is good,” writes Andrew Smart in his book Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing. “This might be one of the most counter-intuitive things to understand about the brain.”1 Noise can be anything you hear (or do not hear) when you’re trying to work intellectually. You might be hearing the neighbor drilling the walls or the sound of the traffic while sitting outside in your favorite coffee house. It can be your colleague sitting next to you and asking you a question or the office sounds2 that we tried to avoid at all costs before the pandemic. Even the music we listen to on our high-tech noise-canceling headphones to avoid the sounds surrounding us is noise. Every soundwave that triggers our neurons to light up is noise.
There has been a significant paradigm shift that happened with the coronavirus pandemic. Many office workers are now working from home (WFH), and it seems that WFH is here to stay. My employer was already providing noise-canceling headphones to avoid unwanted sounds in the office and focus on our tasks whenever we wanted. Providing headphones is only a patch to the root cause of the problem, of course. The blame goes to the open office plans where you don’t have walls surrounding you from external interruptions. In their book, Peopleware, authors emphasize that “the top performers’ space is quieter, more private, better protected from interruption.”3 Now that you have your home to work from, you must be more productive, right? Unfortunately, the noise has only changed shape while the work migrated from the office to our homes.
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Noise is a complicated topic. We can’t say it’s good just because our brains require noise, but we also can’t say it’s evil due to its productivity-killer attributes. Let me give you two extreme examples to show why we need to seek a balance. First, we rented an apartment in the Mediterranean region in Turkey. We were foreign to the city and did not know where to pick an apartment. It was tough to find a good one, especially with our Golden Retriever, Astro, because landlords were skeptical of tenants with dogs. In the end, we rented the first place that accepted us to end our misery with the search. Oh, what a mistake we had made. The building was in the landing route of airplanes of Antalya Airport—the second busiest airport of Turkey where an aircraft lands every 2 minutes at the rush hours. The sound of the landing planes was unbearable. We stayed there for eight months, but the stress caused by the noise made us feel like we had aged multiple years. Too much noise: Bad. On the other extreme, there are silent rooms in which you can experience true silence. One example is the anechoic chamber at the Orfield Laboratory in Minnesota. The founder, Steven Orfield himself, could not bear to stay inside for more than 30 minutes due to the lack of sound’s disorienting effects.4 Perhaps, like everything in life, we cannot classify the noise on a 0-to-1 scale. There is undoubtedly more to how we experience noise on a broader scale.
Artist: Gülfemin Buğu Tekcan — cosmodotart
The usual noise is a productivity killer by definition. I think most people would agree with that. The reason it’s killing our productivity is that, by nature, it interrupts our focus. A self-evident example would be getting interrupted by someone calling your name in the office. This example, of course, is legitimate because your focus needs to break to answer whoever’s calling you. However, it’s not always the case. Imagine sitting in your office chair, working in front of your computer in an open office plan. Your seat is naturally right next to your teammates. Two of them start a conversation about a particular part of the product you’re all working on. The part they’re talking about is not in your interests at all. However, you begin to pick up bits and pieces from their conversation and slowly lose focus because you can follow the discussion. You may even join the conversation with your inner voice, rejecting some of the ideas with your counter-arguments. You’re now far from the task you’ve been focusing on.
Then comes the idea of your noise-canceling headphones. You put it on to avoid eavesdropping on others’ conversations. You open YouTube or Spotify for some background music, perhaps start playing your favorite band.5 You get back to your task with a bit of a delay, but you gain your focus back. After some time, a song you love comes up. You know most of the lyrics, so you automatically start lipsyncing. It brings back some memories of the last time you listened to the band live. It was during a festival where you camped with your buddies. Oh, how you missed those crowded events that happened before the pandemic. I second that. But, hey, you just lost your focus. Again.
So maybe putting on some music on your headphones was not the best idea after all. But the noisy environment was the reason to put them on in the first place. Now you’re at a crossroads. Both options seem counter-productive. Perhaps you should go back home to work? Working from home might be a solution, as the authors of Peopleware explain that “people are hiding out to get some work done.” But as many people experienced in the pandemic, WFH comes with its own set of interruptions.6 How can anyone achieve something meaningful & beautiful in such toxic & noisy environments? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to that question.
We may not be able to escape from noisy environments. However, there is one fact that we can benefit from the noise. We can also achieve better focus if we can convert the noise into something that won’t attract our attention. Noise is necessary for our brains to function in an orderly fashion. In the book The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver says that “The signal is the truth. The noise is what distracts us from the truth.”7 Andrew Smart adds that “there are many circumstances in which the addition of the right amount of noise actually boosts the signal.” So within the randomness of the noise, we can achieve greater creativity as the randomness of evolution brings the best out of humans. Think of an office environment where there is noise, but you cannot pick up bits and pieces from the ongoing conversations. Imagine sitting in a noisy cafe but still working on your paper because you don’t know anyone and don’t have the context of any discussion. Perhaps you listen to music while working, but the music doesn’t have lyrics or any familiar rhythms. Frankly, these are the best environments for me to perform high on any intellectual work.
To conclude, I could summarize the effects of noise on our lives in two steps. Noise can elegantly enhance your productivity and creativity if you achieve to utilize it by avoiding sounds that would attract your immediate attention. It’s undoubtedly a productivity-killer in most cases under the circumstances we live and work. However, it’s also possible to revert the environment to our benefit when we know noise is necessary for our brains to function at a high level.
How was your experience with noise and noisy environments? How many times have you experienced joy when you cannot avoid the noise? Let me know in the comments.
“Noise is good. This might be one of the most counter-intuitive things to understand about the brain. […] Put noise in a linear system and you just get noise out; put noise in a nonlinear system like a brain and you might get a symphony or a novel.” from Autopilot: The Art & Science of Doing Nothing by Andrew Smart
When working from home was normalized, many apps popped up to give you the sense of working from the office. You can find an excellent interactive example of such an app at https://imisstheoffice.eu/
Excerpt from “Chapter 8: You never get anything done around here between 9 and 5” from Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams by Tom DeMarco and Timothy R. Lister. A fantastic book that delivers what the title promises.
Silence Can Cause Hallucinations or Craziness from Scientific Scribbles published by The University of Melbourne
A quick Google Search with “work from home interruptions” will give you tons of meaningful results.