Sites like http://whitenoisemp3s.com and http://www.simplynoise.com, as well as a multitude of "concentration apps" on Android Market and iPhone App Store propose the idea that white noise improves your ability to focus and concentrate. I've seen similar claims for pink and brown noise as well.

On the other hand, there seems to be some research suggesting that it actually has a negative effect on learning and memory.

So which is it? Is it a good idea or not to listen to [insert color] noise when trying to focus?

  • Related: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/5268/… – Zano Feb 14 '12 at 1:30
  • This is all conjecture as of right now, but science is moving in on the genetic quirks of ADHD, and one of them appears to have to do with signal-processing in the brain. There is some evidence for mutations in the metabotropic glutamate receptor networks being responsible for the erratic levels of dopamine and noradrenalin that is typical of adhd. There appears to be mutations in the DRD4 genes as well, that regulate the production of cAMP, an amino-acid that helps with signal-transferrence in the Prefrontal Cortex - for some people with ADHD, the medication Guanfacine, which works by reducin – user18444 Mar 28 '14 at 13:26
up vote 16 down vote accepted

Keep in mind the way they're defining "white noise" in the scientific american article you provided is different from what you link to on wikipedia. The SA definition is more in terms of ambient noise (e.g., traffic, low-level talking, a/c running, etc.) while white noise proper is a signal with a VERY specific acoustical pattern. It seems that the SA article is relating to deterioration in performance due to the stress caused by the increased attentional resources required to "tune-out" the ambient noise. If white noise proper completely eliminates all other ambient noise (without being too loud of course), this eliminates the allocation of these additional resources. Because white noise proper is essentially featureless, one will habituate to it unlike common ambient noise.

Carlson, Rama, Artchakov, & Linnankoski (1997) found a significant decrease in memory when exposed to music during a memory task and a significant increase in performance when exposed to white noise in comparison to a control which had only low level ambient noise. Though it was not the main purpose of the study, the authors conclude that music drew attention away and thus interfered while white noise likely drowned out the ambient noise without drawing attention and thus improved performance. Please keep in mind the sample of this study was on monkeys, but the processes are expected to be generalizable to humans.

Daee & Wilding (1977) found that the likelihood of forgetting during a free recall task is related to the level of noise to which one is exposed during rehearsal such that recall is best in a quiet environment and degrades at 75 and 85 dB. Though this study was not on concentration directly, these results can be seen to have applicable implications regarding attentional resources.

Along these same lines, Salame & Baddeley (1987) found significant differences in recall between unattended speech versus white noise such that unattended speech interferes with performance while no statistical difference was found in the white noise condition (in comparison to a quiet control). The authors conclude "...that noise does not interfere with short-term memory but that unattended speech does impair performance..."

The studies I cite above are related to memory recall tasks which, though involving similar processes to long-term concentration are not perfectly comparable. However, there is a pretty comprehensive literature showing the effects of noise exposure having negative effects on long-term tasks such as learning (e.g., Hygge, 1993, Lercher, Evans, & Meis, 2003). Additionally, Mathews & Canon, 1975 state "data [suggests] that arousal leads to a state of restricted attention or cue utilization in which attention is concentrated on salient features of the setting at the expense of its other aspects" which does not hinder attention to "central or salient events." This idea is related to the theory that noise facilitates functioning through the stimulation of processing such that increased arousal yields better performance until over-arousal occurs which then decreases performance (Hockey, 1983 from Staal, 2004). Stall (2004) also discusses the possibility of continuous v. intermittent noises having differential impact such that continuous may be beneficial while intermittent is harmful, though there is no current agreement in the literature (see pages 88-91).

Thus, the literature seems to support the following:

White noise will improve performance to the extent to which it masks noises that may cause over-arousal or attention shifts away from the task without causing over-arousal itself. Practically speaking, if you're in a quiet environment, white noise is unlikely to have a positive effect on your concentration. If you are in a somewhat noisy environment, white noise will likely have a positive effect. However, in a very noisy environment it will likely have either no or a negative effect.

  • Can you include a citation? What does the article say? :-) – Sklivvz Feb 16 '12 at 0:56
  • Effects of music and white noise on working memory performance in monkeys. (1997). Carlson, Rama, Artchakov, & Linnankoski, NeuroReport, 8, 2853-2856. The major findings was a significant decrease in memory performance when exposed to music during the task and a significant increase in performance when exposed to white noise in comparison to a control which had only low level ambient noise. The authors conclude that music drew attention away and thus interfered while white noise likely drowned out the ambient noise without drawing attention and thus improved performance. – Variable Feb 16 '12 at 13:16
  • @Variable: Could you incorporate your comment into your answer? – Zano Feb 16 '12 at 22:49
  • @Zano: Happily. :-) I was just waiting until I had the opportunity to research it more thoroughly. – Variable Feb 17 '12 at 0:02
  • 2
    "If it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing." -Mythbusters :-) – Variable Feb 17 '12 at 22:43

More recent research suggest that white noise has a moderate impact on improving attention in inattentive children:

The effects of background white noise on memory performance in inattentive school children

Listen to the Noise: Noise is Beneficial for Cognitive Performance in ADHD

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