The open office is well known to be terrible news for concentration levels, as we’re so often distracted by the general noise and hubub around us. In scientific terms, this is known as the so called cocktail party problem.
This is when people can hear perfectly well when in small, 1-to-1 conversations, but when placed in a crowded room things are different entirely.
It’s a problem explored in a recent paper by researchers at Boston University.
The Cocktail Party Problem
“It can really affect communication,” the authors say. “It causes people to avoid those kinds of places, either because they don’t want to work that hard or it’s just unpleasant to be in a situation where they’re not following things. So it’s a big problem.”
The researchers wanted specifically to test whether people could train themselves to overcome the problem or not. In other words, could we learn how to listen selectively to certain sounds? They explored the world of musicians who often have to focus in on specific instruments within an orchestra.
“Music places huge demands on certain mechanisms in the brain, and at some levels, these overlap with language mechanisms” the authors say. “The question is: would a high level of musical training advance speech and language as well?” In other words, can musical training help fix the cocktail party problem?
This is often a problem in our workplaces because much of the background din around us is actually quite interesting. It’s a very different kind of noise to the coffee grinder noise that’s been shown to actually support creativity.
When a dozen musicians and non-musicians were tested, it emerged that the musicians were predictably much better at zoning out conflicting noises than their non-trained peers.
It emerged that the key to the success the musicians had was in how their brains processed the noises they heard. It wasn’t so much that the musicians had better hearing so much as they had better ability to focus on certain sounds.
What isn’t so clear is whether this is something that musicians have an inherent gift for or are able to develop with training.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” the researchers concede. “The whole issue of causality and correlation—is it innate or is it learned?—is an open question.”
All of which leaves probably more questions than it does provide answers, but it nonetheless opens up an interesting avenue for further research, and may in time provide us all with a means (other than headphones) of ‘zoning out’ open office noise.