From: David A Gabel, ENN
Published May 14, 2012 04:30 PM

How Ambient Noise Affects Cognitive Ability

Just as water pollution is contamination of the water, noise can be considered contamination of the air waves. From a cognitive standpoint, there exists an optimal level of ambient noise. Too far above or below this level will cause focus and creativity to drop off. In this sense, noise is like pollution of the mind. A new study from the University of Illinois shows that ambient noise is a major factor affecting creative cognitive abilities. It is something that advertisers and marketers should be especially attuned to in marketing their products to the public.

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"We found that ambient noise is an important antecedent for creative cognition," said Ravi Mehta, professor of business administration and co-author of the study. "A moderate level of noise not only enhances creative problem-solving but also leads to a greater adoption of innovative products in certain settings."

They found that a moderate level of ambient noise (about 70 decibels) enhanced performance on creative tasks and actually increases the chance of consumers purchasing innovative products. By way of comparison, 70 decibels is close to the sound of a passing passenger car on the highway.

When the sound level rises to 85 decibels, creativity and information processing is reduced. This is equivalent to traffic noise on a major roadway. As the noise increases, so does the individual's level of distraction.

"An increased level of distraction makes you think 'out-of-the-box' — what we call abstract thinking or abstract processing, which is a hallmark of increased creativity," Mehta said. "But when you start to go beyond that moderate level of noise what happens is that distraction becomes so huge that it really starts affecting the thought process. You really can't process information because the distraction is so pronounced. And that is what inhibits creativity.

"So a moderate level of noise produces just enough distraction to lead to higher creativity, but a very high level of noise induces too much distraction, which actually reduces the amount of processing, thus leading to lower creativity."

Mehta and his colleagues suggest that some variant of white noise should be used in consumer environments such as malls, showrooms, and exhibits. However, this research is not solely applicable to marketing; it can be used for problem solving as well.

For example, when studying for a test or writing a difficult paper, being in absolute quiet may not be ideal. Going to a noisy environment may actually get the creative juices flowing by forcing the brain to think abstractly.

The article, "Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition," is available online.

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