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The impact of noise on creativity

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The impact of noise on creativity

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There’s an interesting heuristic that says that open plan offices are anathema to creativity.  The hubbub of interruptions and disruptions cause so many breaks to our concentration that it renders creative thought impossible.

A prime case in point was a recent study by architecture firm Gensler into open plan offices.  It found that open plan offices can often create so much interaction between people that it actually harms our ability to work productively, and indeed collaboratively.

“Collaboration can be taken too far. It actually has diminishing returns,” Diane Hoskins, co-CEO of Gensler, said . ”When everybody’s collaborating around you, you can’t focus.”

So too much noise can disrupt our workflow, but what about too little noise?  A new site is based around the idea that we need a bit of background noise in order to work well.  #]

The site, called Coffitivity aims to replicate the noise we experience in our favourite coffee shops from the comfort of our desks. The site was inspired by research showing that the noise made by coffee machines and so on is actually just the right amount of background noise to stimulate our creative juices.

The research was conducted by the University of Illinois, who asked participants to brainstorm ideas for new products whilst listening to various levels of background noise.  They found that the 70 decibels provided by things like a television or a coffee shop is optimum.

This compared to the 50 decibels we are surrounded by in a quiet environment, or the 80 decibels of a noisy environment such as next to a blender, both of which were less than optimum.

The finding sounds counterintuitive, but the researchers believe that quiet environments allow us to focus too much on the task at hand, which then inhibits our creativity.

“This is why if you’re too focused on a problem and you’re not able to solve it,” they said, “you leave it for some time and then come back to it and you get the solution.”

Of course, this environment only works well for creative tasks for which a bit of distraction is beneficial.  When we’re doing work that demands attention to detail, quiet environments come out trumps.

The findings mirror those from a few weeks ago that looked at the visual conditions that encourage creativity.  It found that innovation thrives when the light in the room is dim rather than bright.  Whether adding a bit of background hum to the low level lighting super charges the effect is at this stage unknown, but let me know if you try it out in your own workplace.

Republished with permission


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