Instant Guide

The secret to creativity: Background noise?

Coffee-shop writers, take note: A new study suggests that when you need your imagination to expand, it helps to have a little activity buzzing around you

It can be hard to do creative work in a noisy cubicle, but a silent office isn't ideal, either. Indeed, a new paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research says that the perfect working environment should buzz with a little ambient noise. How much of a background hum is optimal? Here, a brief guide to why peace and quiet might make it harder for you to do your best thinking:

What is the ideal noise level?Researchers found that test subjects were at their most creative when background noise was measured at 70 decibels, a level one might find in a fairly busy coffee shop. A nearly silent environment (50 decibels) was too quiet. Cranking up the volume to 85 decibels (by, say, adding a jackhammering laborer outside your building) is counterproductive; the noise becomes a distraction.

How did they figure this out?The researchers asked 65 students at the University of British Columbia to perform various creative tasks while noises recorded at a roadside restaurant were played in the background. In one experiment, for example, scientists asked participants to brainstorm ideas for a new type of mattress. Test subjects had the most success when the noise in the background was noticeable, but not jarring.

Why does background noise foster creativity?The authors of the study say that moderate background noise creates just enough of a distraction to force people to think more imaginatively, without breaking their focus so completely that they can't think at all. "Instead of burying oneself in a quiet room trying to figure out a solution," the authors write, "walking out of one's comfort zone and getting into a relatively noisy environment may trigger the brain to think abstractly, and thus generate creative ideas."

Does that mean workers should all hit Starbucks?Not exactly. The researchers found that periodic, limited work time surrounded by the low-level hum of a coffeehouse is what really stimulates creativity. And working in a cafe environment isn't good for everybody. The productivity boost was most pronounced among participants already classified as "highly creative." Background noise isn't as helpful for people who have difficulty ever thinking outside the box. "Sorry, dullards," says David Futrelle at TIME. "You're on your own."

SourcesAtlanticGuardian, Science Daily, TIME

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