June 15, 2015
A new study finds that “natural” sounds could help workers keep their focus in noisy surroundings, especially in busy office environments. Researchers from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found that the sounds of nature (e.g. rivers, chirping birds) were uniquely good at drowning out the irregular noises of typing, chatting, and shuffling paper that unconsciously destroy our cognitive focus.
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The key, the researchers argue, is finding a sound “mask” that matches the tempo of distractions. Music is typically too rhythmic, with predictable undulations of base and treble. While nice to listen to, rhythmic musical patters are out of sync with the erratic nature of office sounds. Therefore, music can’t cancel out the distraction spikes in office noise that pierce through the beats.
Nature, however, is delightfully unpredictable. The random splashes of a waterfall or uneven breeze of the wind more closely aligns with the erratic pattern of office noise.
“The mountain stream sound possessed enough randomness that it did not become a distraction,” explained graduate student Alana DeLoach. “This is a key attribute of a successful masking signal.”
Buying a big headset that completely blocks out all sound may not be any better, since some research suggests that complete silence is less effective for optimal cognitive function than light ambient noise. Ancient man may not have been bothered by heavy construction or clanking keyboards, but he was never in absolute complete silence.
Of course, long before this latest study, folks have suspected that natural sounds are ideal for relaxation. So, there’s an entire musical genre of “natural ambiance” albums. Spotify has a few available that users can test out right now.
My favorite natural sounds playlist is the ‘Sounds of Natural Ambience’ by Rest & Relax (you can play it in the link here).
Open office layouts are all the rage in Silicon Valley these days, but there’s a lot of research to suggest they’re noisy, distracting, and impair cognitive focus. Open office designs may be great for collaboration, but they also knock down any protective barriers between our ears and the cacophony of a manic business.
Image Credit: Flickr/Alexander Boden
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