Michille: Ambient Noise and Creativity

noiseI recently stumbled on an ambient noise website (Ambient Mixer) and found it helpful in my creative process. It blocked out the death rattle on our aging Advatium oven, the scritching and scratching of our highly allergic dog, and other aural distractions. I started to dig around for more sites that might have other ambient mixers that I could use and stumbled on a research study from 2012. Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition (Mehta, R., Zhu, R., & Cheema, A. (2012). Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(4), 784-799). I’ll start with the conclusion:

“Results from five experiments demonstrate that a moderate (70 dB) versus low (50 dB) level of ambient noise enhances performance on creative tasks and increases the buying likelihood of innovative products. A high level of noise (85 dB), on the other hand, hurts creativity. Process measures reveal that a moderate (vs. low) level of noise increases processing difficulty, inducing a higher construal level [physiological distance] and thus promoting abstract processing, which subsequently leads to higher creativity. A high level of noise, however, reduces the extent of information processing and thus impairs creativity.”

In short, when people are thinking abstractly, they are less likely to fixate, and thus more creative. In case you’re wondering (I was), 50 dB is, say, a percolating coffee-maker. 60-70 dB is normal conversation at about three to five feet apart, or a normal piano practice, and heads into loud TV volume. 85 dB is equivalent to city traffic inside a car or a food blender. 20 dB is like the rustle of autumn leaves and 30 dB is like whispering. I would have thought 20 – 30 dB would be more conducive, but Mehta, Zhu, and Cheema found otherwise.

Here are some examples and another site to try:

Do you find abstract thinking versus fixation helps your creativity? What helps you be more creative?

5 thoughts on “Michille: Ambient Noise and Creativity

  1. How fun that so many of those mixers you list are inspired by books! It’s like a lovely cycle — music/sounds inspired by books, which helps create more books, which help inspire more music, and so on and so forth.

    I do like listening to rhythmic sounds while I’m writing. It helps me concentrate better. I have also been listening to binaural beats when I go to sleep. (-: And I check out one of the kings of ambient noise, Brian Eno, regularly on Twitter. I haven’t listened to a lot of his music (although what I’ve heard I’ve liked), but I do like his oblique strategies for creativity.

    One of my friends really likes listening to rain sounds, and there are plenty of apps for that. I like listening to rain sounds when I’m writing, too, and even recorded some with birds for a writing loop.

    For some reason, I haven’t been using this trick lately. I’m not sure why. I used to carry my music player and earphones in my bag, but I stopped. I should try doing that again! Thanks for the reminder!

  2. I’m not sure what “fixation” means in the context of this sound study—it’s probably explained in the study, but I just went with your conclusion. 🙂 When I used to have a day job and I was editing endless manuscripts, I liked to listen to classical music—nothing with words that I understood (if they sang Latin, fine). But when I’m writing, I like silence. Even classical throws me off. I guess I need to hear the ephemeral whispers in my little brain!

    • That’s so interesting, Kay! I tend to like music for creation because it distracts me from the little whispers trash-talking me or tempting me to the internet. (-: It’d be such a boring world if our brains all worked the same. I’m totally with you on the no-words thing, though.

    • I took fixate to mean concentration on particular details as opposed to free-form thinking. And I agree with you regarding words in music when I’m concentrating. I take yoga with live music and when the musician chants mantras in English, I find it very distracting, but when she chants in Sanskrit, I’m fine with it.

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