I’ve always been one of those people who cannot work well in silence. As a child, when my mother told me to turn off my radio while I did my homework, I used to say that “silence distracts me”, but she wouldn’t accept that – and fair enough, it sounds like the excuse of a stubborn child who wants to daydream about their favourite rock star, but it wasn’t what I meant. What I was really saying was that without something going on in the background, I was more easily distracted.
I’m not saying that I was never distracted by my background noise, but I was aware, even as a child, that it was new things – new songs, new TV shows, new news – that distracted me, so if I put on some music I knew backwards, or a video of a show I’ve seen a hundred times (Yes, Minister for example), I was able to focus – but not in silence. In silence, my mind wanders, my inner editor won’t shut up, I have ideas for completely different stories than the one I’m trying to write, I remember the washing and wonder what’s for dinner. I always thought of it as though there were parts of my mind which needed to be distracted so that the part of my brain which did the interesting thinking, the clear thinking, the understanding rather than the constant questioning, could get a chance to come forward and do its work.
Turns out, that’s kind of what’s going on – kind of. “They” have done a study into “the effects of ambient noise on creative cognition” and found that silence is, in fact, not the ideal environment for abstract (creative) thinking. Rather, a moderate (not low) decibel level of ambient noise – not just white noise, but the noise of activity – raises creative cognition. From my layman’s reading, they have found that by raising “process difficulty” a little, your brain goes into a state in which abstract thought is active, and that does not occur if that difficulty (distraction) is not present.
These studies are not new, after a study in the mid 80’s, I was allowed to listen to Beethoven while I studied but I found it too distracting (for one thing, I was always trying to work out the ‘Cello part). There are several gadgets and software applications which will play you white noise, or meditative music, or the sound of waves and they work for some. I’d never found one that works for me, but I have, now. It’s called “Coffitivity“.
On the Coffitivity page, you can press play for a constant loop of the kind of ambient noise you get at a coffeeshop: the hum of conversations; the clink of crockery; the tinkle of cutlery. I’ve found that, aside from the occasional thought “I really must review this, it’s fantasic!”, Coffitivity seems to hit my sound sweet spot. I quickly lose myself in my work, and save a lot of time looking for music that will match my scene’s mood, or news radio that won’t pull my attention (I’d been using C-Span, lately), and the inevitable forays into Facebook and surfing while I was hunting. Of course, I could get the same effect by going to a coffeeshop, but my introvert tendencies prefer to be at my own desk, for the most part, and no-one’s going to give me a dirty look for occupying a table all day!