White noise won’t make you more creative

Do you know exactly how susceptible you are to auditory stimulation and how it impacts your ability to think creatively? Probably more than you imagine.

For example, studies have shown that it’s possible for us to subconsciously detect a shift in sound less than half a decibel (or 0.41db for you science nerds)[1]. That’s quieter than a whisper, comparable to the rustling of leaves on a tree.

Which is why it should come as no surprise how your surroundings impact you when you’re working or brainstorming.

The sound of strangers quietly talking in a cafe, having the TV on behind your laptop, or even something as subtle as a dishwasher running in another room, can impact your ability to think creatively and concentrate.

Unfortunately, many of us have been mislead into believing that background distractions provide just enough stimulus to actually help creativity and concentration.

We use services and tools like Coffivity to “get in the creative zone.”

The bad news is your immensely powerful auditory perception means you’re less likely to be creative when there’s a certain range of white noise present than if you were to sit in silence or if you were to listen to music.

Even for white noise sound generation tools, the research is insightful. People who participated in these concentration research studies were reported to be only slightly more creative under very specific decibel situations (42 dB on average, or slightly quieter than an average face-to-face conversation).[2]

If you were able to control your environment and create an ideal auditory situation, the benefit is minimal, if there is any notable benefit at all to begin with.

Why? The research that indicates a certain level of auditory noise increases creativity isn’t entirely accurate. However, there have been studies that show overly-loud stimulation can increase stress and hinder your ability to concentrate or generate ideas.[3]

In addition to loud noise being a distraction, research shows soft or quiet noise (between 30 and 40 decibels) has no noticeable effect on concentration or mental abilities.

The sweet spot for concentration is anywhere from silence (~20 db) to low-level white noise (~50-60db). Research points towards the true impact sound can have, it’s not creativity or focus, but the ability to create an environment that encourages concentration. Showing that the levels of sound actually improving cognitive abilities is less of a case of causation and more of correlation.

White noise doesn’t necessarily help you be more creative, it simply doesn’t distract you as much as trying to work at a rock concert or while a group of co-workers talk loudly next to you would.

It also doesn’t help that our sensitivity to shifts in sound levels is so microscopic. If you’re able to utilize a white noise tool or find yourself a decent cafe to work in, a sudden banging sound nearby or something similarly uncontrollable is all it would take to ruin your concentration and break down ideas. Our ears and mind are just too sensitive to constantly be in the perfect zone for creativity and focus, so we can’t rely on specific white noise generators or uncontrollable environments.

With all of that said, what’s the best way to ensure your environment is one that fuels your concentration and creativity?

Try to control your auditory input as best as possible.

Go to a cafe you know is consistently quiet (quieter than a face-to-face conversation) and work there. You could use software like Coffivity, iTunes, or even the radio to play consistently loud or soft music too, as long as the surrounding environment is equally controllable. Or get noise-canceling headphones and don’t play and sounds or music at all to keep your sensory input limited and in control.

While it’s difficult to find the most ideal environment for creative productivity, anything you can do to control the environment of stimulus will help.

Really that’s what these tools and apps are trying to do anyway. These white noise apps and tools aren’t necessarily enforcing creative output or concentration, but helping you better control the outside stimulus that would otherwise distract you.

Forget about white noise increasing your creativity. The only way to do be more creative is to actively pursue it. Try to control the amount of stimulus you get when brainstorming and working, but other apart from that: get back to work.


  1. scitation.aip.org
  2. jstor.org
  3. tandfonline.com

Photo by Craig Westfall.