Written by Lee Davison
As acousticians, we know (or like to think!) that the sound around us affects us in ways that most people don’t realise. Whether it’s reverb in your classroom that means you can’t hear the teacher properly, or in the shower making you think you’re a great singer, the acoustic spaces around us have a pretty profound effect on the way we experience life, that often goes unnoticed.
This makes you wonder what the ideal acoustic specification for a space is. What’s the best reverb time for music, or the best noise level for concentrating, or perhaps being creative? This is the question that Ravi Mehta, Rui Zhu and Amar Cheema undertook to answer in their 2012 paper; “Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition”.1
The paper assessed levels of ambient noise as a variable for affecting performance of set creative tasks, which were assessed using the Remote Associates Test (RAT, Mednick 1962 2). The sound levels chosen were 50, 70, and 85 dB (assumed ref 20 µPa), and consisted of typical café chatter, some traffic noise, and distant construction sounds mixed and level matched to the correct sound pressure levels.
The Remote Associates Test works by issuing three or four words to a person, which are related by some other, undisclosed word that works as the “solution” to the problem. For instance, “Cottage, cake, and Swiss” would have the “solution” of “Cheese”. This kind of test is an interesting way to asses the creative performance of a person under certain conditions, and has been well-used in psychology research.
What the research found was that low and high sound level both scored significantly poorly in comparison to the moderate noise level (70 dB). The reason given for the difference by the paper was that a moderate amount of noise introduces “Processing disfluency” which leads to higher levels of abstract thinking. This basically means that revisiting a problem after distraction allows more creative thought, and a certain level of distracting noise can help. The high level of sound was worse for creativity because it impairs the information processing more, and thereby reduces overall concentrated thought. Too much distraction is a bad thing!
Interestingly this fits well with what we casually observe in people. Oftentimes creative people like to sit in a café to work, and as Einstein suggested; many of our most creative thoughts happen during routine or monotonous work. It’s nice when science follows what we observe.
The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.
- Mehta, R., Zhu, R.J. and Cheema, A., 2012. Is noise always bad? Exploring the effects of ambient noise on creative cognition. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(4), pp.784-799.
- Houston, John P., and Sarnoff A. Mednick (1963), “Creativity and the Need for Novelty,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66 (2), 137–41.