Remote working: the relationship between noise and creativity

Anthony Haynes writes: Where should you to work when you wish to be creative?

Many people would answer, ‘Somewhere quiet, where I won’t be distracted’. Though that may work for some people sometimes, there are problems with that answer.

First, most people find silence actually unbearable. Orfield Laboratories’s anechoic chamber is the quietist place on earth, but as Smithsonian News’s Smart News column reports, it rapidly drives people crazy. It quotes Steve Orfield thus: “We challenge people to sit in the chamber in the dark – one person stayed in there for 45 minutes. When it’s quiet, ears will adapt. The quieter the room, the more things you hear. You’ll hear your heart beating, sometimes you can hear your lungs, hear your stomach gurgling loudly”.

Something similar is true too of even just fairly quiet places: even small sounds, such as the ticking of a clock, tend to become distracting.

So what level of noise tends to be optimal? The question has been researched by Ravi Mehta, Rui (Juliet) Zhu, and Amar Cheema. They conducted five experiments in which the noise level functioned as a controlled variable. Their findings have been published in the Journal of Consumer Research (Vol. 39, No. 4 (December 2012), pp. 784-799) and are available online free of charge here:

Mehta and colleagues found, unsurprisingly, that high noise levels tend to hamper creativity. In the jargon of psychological research, “A high level of noise, however, reduces the extent of information processing and thus impairs creativity”.

Moderate levels of noise, however, tend to be conducive to creative work: “Process measures reveal that a moderate (vs. low) level of noise increases processing difficulty, inducing a higher construal level and thus promoting abstract processing, which subsequently leads to higher creativity”.

The researchers suggest that their findings have implications “for individuals looking for creative solutions to daily problems”: “instead of burying oneself in a quiet room trying to figure out a solution, walking out of one’s comfort zone and getting into a relatively noisy environment (such as a cafe´) may trigger the brain to think abstractly, and thus
generate creative ideas”.


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