The Café Effect

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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.

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2 thoughts on “The Café Effect

  1. with first drafts, rough drafts, down-and-dirty drafts i work much better with music. the more familiar the better – i like it background and familiar enough that it’s not distracting my attention.

    rewites and edits require the church of the public place. in no cal i had two or three cafes that were favorites, but above them all the cafe med on telegraph ave was the truest of spaces. the lighting, the smell, the history, all of it steeped and seeped into my concentration. unlike any other place, ever, i could sit in the med for ten hours working and scarcely notice the time.

    since moving to new england finding such a place has been impossible. there’s no old bohemia here, just the blue collar get-it-and-go coffee joints with no atmosphere and often no table seating either. the cafes that exist attempt to create an ambiance but in fact it’s that kind of laid back that’s the coffee house equivalent of a blueblood wearing a cravat insterd of a bow tie in summer.

    so i’ve found refuge in libraries. people do still go there, and though its quieter it’s still a church of the written word, and that’s good enough to at least get some work done.

    • I love this: “it’s that kind of laid back that’s the coffee house equivalent of a blueblood wearing a cravat insterd of a bow tie in summer.”

      it’s funny. finding that right fit. i have stumbled upon a new place that I hadn’t planned on making a regular spot but it has become one. I usually end up there after I have made my rounds looking at the city with my camera. It’s an odd little place tucked away from what one might think of as the natural flow of foot traffic — but it attracts a crazy mix of folks — some old school l.a., some hipster, architects, some adventurous tourist, odd ball regulars.( one of whom even extended an invitation to a — I kid you not “bring-your-own-kiddie-pool party)

      Like you, I can do the fine tuning/editing in a spot like this — full of conversation and light — but the tough stuff I can’t be distracted at all. I love your description of cafe med. I miss that place very much. It’s bee more than a decade since I’ve been there but you brought it back to me so vividly…
      as for libraries — i used to really love the central library downtown for working — it might be one of my escapes this summer…thanks for reminding me….

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