Does noise help or hurt concentration?

For years, I've thought that low-level background noise can actually help concentration. Bart Kosko talks about this notion in his book Noise. There's also recent research suggesting that noise can improve cognitive performance in children with ADHD. However, physiologist Mark Andrews of the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine writes in the new issue of Scientific American Mind that noise can lead to stress which actually impairs learning and memory. Bottom line? When it comes to noise, YMMV. From SciAm:
Several studies have indicated that stress resulting from ongoing white noise can induce the release of cortisol, a hormone that helps to restore homeostasis in the body after a bad experience. Excess cortisol impairs function in the prefrontal cortex–an emotional learning center that helps to regulate “executive” functions such as planning, reasoning and impulse control. Some recent evidence indicates that the prefrontal cortex also stores short-term memories. Changes to this region, therefore, may disrupt a person’s capacity to think clearly and to retain information.
"How does background noise affect our concentration?" (Thanks, Marina Gorbis!)


  1. I’m very sensitive to sound and have never understood the “white noise” thing. Every time I hear a white noise generator, it just sounds like a Merzbow record to me.

  2. Is there anyone out there who actually listens to white noise while they work? What’t the point of this study?

  3. I know anecdotal evidence is worth absolutely squat scientifically, BUT:

    Speaking as someone with ADD, being in a situation where I’m unmedicated and am expected to focus on a single thing with no distractions is pure hell. Adding the ability to listen to music while I work or (as in this case) surf the web while I troubleshoot makes things a million times more bearable.

    It’s not the noise as such, but the splitting of my concentration, that aids concentration. I loathe white noise.

  4. I once worked in a tech support / customer service call centre that was actually quite pleasant as these things go – good natural light, desks were not crowded together, good cafeteria, a small gym (half basketball court, pingpong tables, a few other things) we could use on breaks.

    It also had a white noise generator, presumably on the theory that it would help concentration.

    One day there was a power failure. Only a few of the desks has UPS backup power, so most of us were taking calls somewhat blind – no ability to test the product to reproduce bugs, no knowledge-base articles, no bug database, no order histories, no ticket logs, etc. We just built up stacks of paper recording things we’d have to enter when the computers worked again and people we’d have to call back.

    It seems like it should have been more stressful, but in my experience, it wasn’t – the absence of the white noise hiss was like a huge weight off my shoulders, it made up for the rest of the disorganization. I think other people in the office had the same experience – people around me seemed more cheeful than usual too.

    1. Your increase in productivity could simply have been the result of a change of environment and not because the white noise machine was turned off. A study was conducted to see which light level would make office workers most efficient. They started with a high light-level and took data, then switched to a lower light-level. The lower light-level made the workers more efficient, but only initially. They eventually went back to the same efficiency they had with the higher light-level. This suggests that it is rather a change in an environment that can make people more efficient. This also makes sense. A new environment keeps people on their toes because they’re learning how to interact with their new environment. Thus, your new environment and having to write things down kept you on your toes because it was new, and you felt more productive. Therefore, your story seems inconclusive as far as the efficacy of white-noise.

    1. I’m not driven by the dub, but some good liquid dnb definitely makes my mind moving and helps to do things more concentrated (I presume, by moving my ADD itch attention to that broken beats line).

  5. There’s a theory going around that noise affects different people differently, so for some people it helps concentration and for others it hurts.

    I’m in the no noise is good camp, but I know others who simply can’t concentrate that way.

  6. I’ve experimented with white noise due to my tinnitus. I find white noise distracting and grating, but I like pink noise a lot. I used a looped file from to make a 3-hour mp3 that I play every night to help me sleep.

  7. Bad question. This is me, sitting in the corner, holding up my “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that” placard.

  8. I have trouble concentrating in complete silence. A background, extra task, music played softly, or generated noise either synthesized or from a fan, help me concentrate better on the true task at hand. When it comes to peace of mind, I and many others have a lot of trouble with sleep anxiety, and background noise is very helpful for sleeping and staying asleep. My worst enemy in sleep is punctuated sound like a cough, a car alarm.. But noise definitely does not help some people and only seems to annoy.

  9. My girlfriend likes white noise to sleep to, so I’ve been listening to that for the past few years. I find that it’s annoying in the first few minutes, and then I don’t even realize it’s on.

    Sometimes at work when the distractions have risen to too high a level, I switch on the white noise for a blast of concentration. It works great for a while. Then, after I’ve forgotten it’s even on, I start to feel pressure building up. When I suddenly remember that my white noise is playing and I turn it off, the rush of blissful silence is so wonderful that I can easily and happily regain all my concentration. A bit weird, I know.

    So anyway. Is the article saying that if we sleep to white noise it’s going to impair our learning and memory?

  10. After spending a couple decades next to a spinning, whirring noisemaker under or on my desk (and worse for a while with RDRAM — more fans, and hot!) I just upgraded to a modern quadcore machine with variable fan speed control and quiet drives. It is a blessed relief. I hadn’t realized how oppressive the fan noise was and how much mental work I was doing not to attend to it.

  11. I work most of the day with headphones on. I do my best work to psytrance – about 140bpm, bouncy and fairly repetitive with just enough variation to keep me interested but not be distracted. Music which is more complex – or trying to listen to, say, an NPR stream – can stop me dead in my tracks as I attempt to focus on the content too much. Silence is almost equally distracting.

  12. I discovered back in highschool that I could concentrate better in class by having one earphone plugged into my walkman, with music on fairly quietly.

    Of course, no teacher believed this, so it wasn’t something I could make extensive use of, but it definitely worked.

    Even now, when I really need to focus, music is a part of the process.

    1. This teacher believes you. I always let my students listen when they’re working on their own or small groups. Earbuds have to come out when I’m talking to them or one of the students is giving a presentation.

  13. Rock music blares, doors slam, people yell, children scream, sirens whine, trucks rumble and roar. . . is there any escape from noise?

  14. Glenn Gould used to turn on his vacuum cleaner to provide a distracting ambient noise while he practiced.

    I ain’t no Gould but I use Aerosmith when writing cloyingly cute children’s television shows.

    Sound may f*ck us up in the long run but the short term effects do provide the ability to push back against something in order to better focus on the task at hand.

    White noise?

    I’ll give it a 9 for the beat.

  15. I was taught in undergrad psyc that extraverts were more likely to find that noise was better for focusing (by bringing their naturally lower state of arousal to a more optimal level), while introverts were more likely to not find noise helpful (since their arousal levels were already at an optimal level). It seems to work in my own personal anecdotal experience.

  16. I have trouble reading/studying in total silence. My mind tends to wander too much, and I get bored with what I’m reading too easily. I also suffer from tinnitus; and it’s much more noticeable and annoying in total silence. I seem to concentrate best in a noisy restaurant or other similar environment. The unintelligible din of lots of people talking in the background seems to help me focus, keeps me from getting bored, and drowns out the tinnitus.

    Similarly, I can’t sleep in total silence. The tinnitus is too annoying; and, because I have fairly sharp hearing, I am annoyed by even the slightest non-continuous sound (e.g. a clock ticking, my heart beating, a car driving by). So, I usually sleep with electric fans (plural) running; though I’ll occasionally sleep with the TV or stereo on at low volume instead. As long as there’s just enough (more-or-less) continuous noise to drown out non-continuous sounds and my tinnitus I can usually fall asleep without much difficulty.

    As for white noise, I tend to find it annoying rather than relaxing. But pink noise is another matter entirely. Pink noise is very relaxing. (And Pink Floyd is even more relaxing; but that’s a matter for another discussion.)

  17. Noise is a pretty loaded word all on its own, really. That being said, I spent a portion of my day listening to harsh noise microcassettes, so I’ll admit that I’m not exactly the median respondent here.

    ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^*&*&*&*&*&***&*&*&#########~ ))())()()((((((((+==========================*** (*YD*&TDG)&*TD)&T*D



  18. Like #7, I listen to white noise to mask my tinnitus while sleeping. Supposedly it can trigger “residual inhibition” which can reduce ringing in the ears. After a year I think it has helped, but that’s just anecdotal.

  19. My first year in my mathematically intensive PhD program required immense concentration during periods of high stress. In order to do work I absolutely required headphones playing music, loudly. Anything with lyrics would distract me, it had to be instrumental. Classical, noise bands, dance, post-rock, it didn’t matter. Eventually I’d tune it all out, and it’d block any otherwise distracting noises from my mind. In a strange way, this was the closest I could ever get to true and absolute silence (where you can’t even hear your own breathing).

    An analogy with light / color would be, rather than trying to eliminate the distraction of color by eliminating it all to the point of blackness, instead pile it on until everything is white.

  20. I’m in the no noise camp, with qualifications. I sleep with ear plugs in or I don’t sleep at all. I’ll wear ear plugs if I drive a long distance alone. I arrive much less tired and stressed. I once worked in an office with a white noise generator to mask inter-cube conversations and it made no difference. Everyone around me knows I can’t have a conversation in a room with a TV on. It’s not the sound, it’s the voices. Many people like to have the TV on in the background ‘for company’ but I find it totally frustrating. That said, I like to work with instrumental music playing. I think SOMAFM’s Groove Salad accounts for 50% of my productivity at home.

  21. The decline and fall of American journalism can be traced to the removal of the background noise generated by wire service teletype machines from newsrooms.

  22. This crap is garbage. and as for helping with my ADD it’s is NOT at all. It’s is a constant distraction as my brain cannot locate the source of this obnoxious racket. It sounds like a television that’s been left on except I have to sit in the freaking garbage 8 hours a day because some retard in upper management decided to buy a machine. Sitting all day in this sound pollution gives me a migraine. This is the worst experience I have EVER had and will probably quit my job as a result. I don’t know if my brain is wired or overly sensitive but this is week three and I’m about to lose my mind.

  23. Does anyone know who did the study about how subjects’ concentration improved when they control over the volume of background noise? The interesting thing was that the subjects didn’t use the control – they just needed to know that they could.

    Anyone know where I can find the authors and more details about that study? Thanks very much and soothing sounds to you all.

  24. it should be no mystery that noise affects different people in different ways. I happen to be one of those people who can not tolerate bass vibrations and do not find constant white noise pleasant or conducive to work. I can listen to a tv program, podcast or music when I am doing light concentration duties like answering emails or filing but when it comes to really tight focused concentration required for an elaborate computer illustration, or figuring out an accounting software problem, I have the hardest time settling in and getting comfortable because I have simply reached my limit with the constant “white” noise around my house.

    There is a rise & fall in traffic from the nearby highway but for the most part it is ALWAYS there among the air conditioner or fan or whatnot. Now, my friend keeps professing that a “water feature” should be enough to help but I can tell you that after a couple of hours of trying to concentrate I feel like throwing the damn thing against the wall because I’m saturated with the layers of noise – the buzz of air planes, the low pulse of the neighbors bass speaks, the growl of a distant lawn mower or train, the whoosh of traffic from the highway – it just gets to be too much for me. I don’t know why I am so “differently sensitive”, if it is come inner ear thing or I didn’t go to enough rock concerts in my youth but I have to LEAVE my house and go somewhere else for a couple of hours to get away from the layers of constant noise just to reset myself. And even then sometimes when I come back ready to get down to business I still have to put in ear plugs for a little while just to get into the “concentration zone”.

    All of that being said I have yet to research “pink noise” and how carpeting the walls might help…

  25. While some noise for menial tasks is no bother or even helpful, most high concentration tasks simply require near or almost dead silence for any meaningful productivity. By high concentration, I mean like analyzing complex layers of badly written old ’80s-’90s code and where there is little leeway for mistakes.

    White noise might help drown out conversations from afar but not when next door. The white noise is always on, so you can’t escape it by working late.

    While blocking out the white noise with other noise such as music can sometimes help, the mind eventually becomes tired of noise because high concentration tasks take so much energy. Remember that the body requires little sleep, it’s the mind that benefits most from sleep.

    Sometimes listening to something loud before work can desensitize the mind from the white noise but the effect eventually wears out, just like a 3rd or 4th cup of caffeine has less impact than the 1st. There is a limit for noise tolerance that hasn’t been properly studied.

    There is definitely different results for different people under different scenarios. A good study would take all of that into consideration. If they want to maximize the contributions to society from all of us, they have to redo their studies to accommodate those of us who do not find white noise helpful or find that it even drastically lowers productivity.

Comments are closed.