Coffee Shop Noise, and Our Brains

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I love writing and working at coffee shops. Writing and staring at a computer all day gets a little lonely — so there is something mildly reassuring about being in the middle of a hub of humanity at the local Starbucks. And maybe some science suggests we’re more creative for it, from The New York Times (“How the Hum of a Coffee Shop Can Boost Creativity”):

“Coffitivity, was inspired by recent research showing that the whoosh of espresso machines and caffeinated chatter typical of most coffee shops creates just the right level of background noise to stimulate creativity. The Web site, which is free, plays an ambient coffee shop soundtrack that, according to researchers, helps people concentrate …

Their results, published in The Journal of Consumer Research, found that a level of ambient noise typical of a bustling coffee shop or a television playing in a living room, about 70 decibels, enhanced performance compared with the relative quiet of 50 decibels.

A higher level of noise, however, about 85 decibels, roughly the noise level generated by a blender or a garbage disposal, was too distracting, the researchers found.”

My preference is for the medium-busy coffee shop; blender noises are too jarring, but even worse are the baristas who sound like they have Carnival Barker listed somewhere on their resumes. Sometimes variety is good: “The benefits of moderate noise, however, apply only to creative tasks. Projects that require paying close attention to detail, like proofreading a paper or doing your taxes, Dr. Mehta said, are performed better in quiet environments.”

family guy writing in starbucks

Coffitivity is a great alternative when total silence gets too deafening. They even have an app now ($1.99). My only quibble is that a little more variety in coffee shop type sounds would do wonders — even if it is only ambient noise, hearing the same sound patterns on a continuous loop over and over again can also be counterproductive.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study mentioned in the article has some interesting tidbits: “Switching the color of your computer’s background screen to blue enhances performance on creative tasks, for example, while making it red helps with detail-oriented tasks.” When you’re stuck on ideas, anything’s worth a try, I suppose.

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Lifehacker also has another coffee shop ambiance alternative: “Soundrown Plays Coffee Shop Noise, White Noise, Rain, and More to Help You Focus

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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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