So, let’s take a closer look at the link between background noise and concentration and how sound affects the brain. Whether you’re an employer looking to improve employee focus, or a frustrated student or worker wondering why it’s so hard to concentrate, here’s everything you need to know about the impact of noise on productivity.
For some people, noise distractions can be just that – mere distractions. For others, though, they’re completely unable to concentrate with background noise.
It’s clear that background noise can affect concentration – it’s just that it affects each person differently.
It all comes down to how our brains process sounds. The neural networks in our brains have certain processes they must follow to achieve focus and concentration. When there’s background noise, it competes with the brain signals for the things you actually want to focus on. For some people, the signals can get jumbled up, meaning it’s difficult to know what to concentrate on.
Studies have backed this theory up, including one by researchers Huang and Elhiali, which asked 81 participants to focus on a repeating sound, while also being exposed to background noises. They found that, when a loud noise happened in the background, the participants were more likely to lose their attention on the task at hand.
They then measured the brain activity of the participants. They found that brain waves synchronized with tones that the participants were focusing on – but once there was a noticeable background noise, the tone synchronization reduced and the brain waves aligned with the background noise.
That means that distracting background noises activate the same region of the brain as sounds that we choose to focus on – and that’s why background noise can be so distracting. Our brains just don’t know what signals are most important. It’s no wonder that it’s so hard to stay focused at work sometimes.
On the other hand, some people do find that working or studying with noise in the background can help them to be more productive. Some research has found that there is a certain optimal noise level that allows people to perform better – but too much noise impacts performance.
So, it’s all about finding that sweet spot between noise and silence, and finding out what noise helps you focus – or what noise helps your employees to focus, if you’re looking for ways to improve the work environment as an employer.