I’M POSTING this because, coincidentally, I’ve been in a back-and-forth with another writer friend who can only write when there is a lot of noise — a lot.
I’m about 180-degrees the opposite in my orientation. Also I am known for working in the famously chaotic newsroom bullpen environment with ear plugs AND noise canceling headphones to block out even the most minute distraction. But this week the New York Times’s “Well” blog reported about a recenlty published study that suggests that I might going about it the wrong way — that working around a just bit of ambient noise can actually enhance your productivity. The post ties this research to the launch of a new website, Coffitivity, which brings the chatter and hum of café society to your own home…
From the post:
In a series of experiments that looked at the effects of noise on creative thinking, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had participants brainstorm ideas for new products while they were exposed to varying levels of background noise. 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.
Ravi Mehta, an assistant professor of business administration at the university who led the research, said that extreme quiet tends to sharpen your focus, which can prevent you from thinking in the abstract.
“This is why if you’re too focused on a problem and you’re not able to solve it,” Dr. Mehta said, “you leave it for some time and then come back to it and you get the solution.”
I’m not quite convinced. I can only make a café stop when I am at very particular stages of the writing process — fine-tuning a piece, making notes as I begin research on a project, trying to free-assoicate, dream up what’s next — and sometimes that does indeed come from what’s filtering in via ambient conversation and observation. (The flow of Coffitivity’s background noise doesn’t contain any discernible words — rather it is rumbling murmur — some giggles — so what of the serendipity and synergy of a real-life café experience — the creative gains that occur with real interaction — even if it is eavesdropped.) So, I’ll keep my patterns as they are: I’ll roam around in the chatter in my head until it is time to be out amid the back-and-forth of the world’s.