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Psychology of sound: how total and utter silence actually impacts your ability to concentrate

Some consider background noise to be their worst enemy when it comes to getting work done – but what does their need for silence really say about them? 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are two kinds of people in the world; those who need background noise (perhaps the hum of a radio or TV) to help them concentrate, and those who find that even the slightest sound – even something as quiet as someone chewing nearby – sends them tearing off down the corridor in search of ear plugs.

Now, from a scientific point of view, focus is almost always lost when a sound reaches around 80 decibels, and psychoanalyst Ester Buchholz has explained that the best very creative work is often completed in or after a period of solitude. And some researchers have even declared that the inability to filter out competing sensory information is a common occurrence in creative geniuses.

But is this really and truly the case?

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“Some people can work really effectively with background noise. I am someone who can work with the TV or radio on no problem; I tune it out and allow it to act as a hypnotic soundtrack which helps me focus better. Other people, however, do need complete silence,” explains TV presenter, author and NLP practitioner Anna Williamson.

“A lot of this is to do with the fact that when we shut down one of our senses, our other active senses are heightened. So if our hearing is reduced, we can focus more on the senses we need for whatever it is we’re doing.”

Can silence boost productivity?

In research published by Inc, it has been suggested that doing nothing and remaining silent can actually increase the production of new brain cells, which could make you more productive in the future. 

Young women working at home - stock illustration
Working in silence is actually hugely beneficial to us, for a number of reasons.

“Prolonged silence can increase brain cells and productivity,” explains Williamson. “And it’s actually really beneficial for our mental health and wellbeing to have periods of silence where our brain can effectively relax and allow everything to settle and slow down.

“Noise can often exacerbate pace and irritations, but with silence, we have an opportunity to take a deep breath and think clearly about what we’re doing with no distractions.”

What happens to our brains when we are interrupted by a noise?

UPMC Health has reported a link between the level of noise a child is exposed to with their abilities as a student, noting that the more noise a child is exposed to, the worse they are able to concentrate – thus impacting their performance at school.

Noting that the same effect can be found in adults, Williamson explains: “If we’re interrupted by a noise, our concentration levels can hit rock bottom, and we are left feeling irritated, stressed and anxious because we lack focus.

“The brain essentially starts to become overloaded with more senses firing on all cylinders and more thought patterns fighting for focus.”

She adds: “Silence gives the brain a break and a chance to refocus. For people working in busy environments, noise can put a real stress on the brain and focus can start to wane when they need to concentrate, affecting their ability to work at full capacity.”

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Have people become more accustomed to working in silence during lockdown?

Of course, many of us have adapted to the noisy world of work. Indeed, our pre-lockdown lives saw us contending with chattering colleagues, radios, ringing phones, and all the other interruptive sounds of a busy office.

Stress, irritation, loud sounds concept. Portrait of angry irritated young woman cartoon character stabding and covering ears with fingers to keep silence in head feeling stressed and tired
Focus is almost always lost when a sound reaches around 80 decibels.

Thanks to Covid, however, a number of us have been forced to work in isolation, and Williamson believes that this may have heightened our sensitivity to noise in the process.

“It has a lot to do with repetition,” she says. “Ultimately, the more you become accustomed to something, the more routine it becomes, and this means that a lot of people are now struggling to return to a busy work environment because they’ve become used to a much quieter space and pace of life.

“But like anything, you can retrain yourself to adapt to the environment you’re in – it’s inherently what we do as human beings!”

Can we learn to tune out distracting noises as we return to the workplace?

“Find out what works for you and try to create the environment you need in order to work to the best of your ability,” advises Williamson.

“It’s important for people to recognise the conditions which enable them, and communicate these needs to their employer and colleagues in order to come to a reasonable solution.”

She stresses: “Your need to work in silence should never be seen as a negative, because it’s a very individual thing.

“Going from 0-100 can be extremely jarring for your mental focus, so ease yourself in with slight adjustments so you can become used to it again.”

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Williamson advises doing the following five things if you’re finding it hard to concentrate in a noisy workplace:

1) Wear noise-reducing headphones or ear plugs

“You might find that you’re able to work in a noisy environment by wearing noise-reducing headphones, or in a quieter area of the office,” says Williamson.

2) Experiment with background noise 

You may find something that works for everyone, particularly if there is a particular type of music (try classical or jazz) that is less jarring. “Indeed, studies have shown that music can create a “distracted focus”, which allows our minds to wander just enough – but not too much – to trigger our creative juices,” says Williamson.

3) Take regular breaks in a quiet space

“This will give your brain a chance to rest and regroup.”

4) Move around

“Find out if there is a quieter area of the office or building that you can work in, even if it’s just for a portion of the day/week so you have time to really focus on the most important tasks,” says Williamson.

5) Practise meditation and mindfulness

The aim here is to focus in on the noises that are distracting you – listen to them, accept them and welcome them in. 

“When we try to resist something like a noise, we become more irritated by it and it can become a persistent niggle. So it’s best to accept it and move on, which should help it dilute and not become a bigger issue,” explains Williamson.

Person watching tv media background illustration - stock photo
Now that the world is addicted to “background TV”, it is more important than ever to strive for silence.

Williamson adds that “it might also be possible to learn to adapt to background noise with exposure,” if this is something you are keen to do. 

Essentially, this would see you “gradually taking on low levels of noise and slowly building it up, in order to train your brain into coping and refocusing.”

But, while you can’t always escape noise all the time, the most important takeaway is this: strive to find pockets of quiet and calm whenever possible. Because it won’t just improve your mental health and allows the brain to return to its normal default state; it could also help you do the best work you can.

Hmm. Anyone else suddenly in the mood to invest in some earplugs?

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For more expert advice from Anna Williamson, you can listen to episodes of Breaking Mum And Dad: The Podcast via all good streaming platforms.

Images: Getty

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