Why do some noises distract us?
In times gone by, a drive to the next town would have been a simple process. Little traffic, and slow going. And maybe the sight of a roadside sign would have been a big excitement. Something new and shiny to look at that would have caught the eye of the driver, and made him or her turn and notice.
Now, however, we are surrounded by distractions everywhere we go. So much so that we have become desensitised to these huge advertisements and we only notice the more extreme or attention-grabbing ones.
- But have we fundamentally changed as the technology changes around us?
- Does our brain react differently as it’s stimulated more and more on a daily basis?
- And how — if we want to focus on our writing, or our work — do we manage these daily distractions?
These are all good questions and in this piece we set out to answer them — as well as uncover what you need to do to do to stay focused, stay creative, and stay productive with all the daily distractions around you.
Distraction and the brain
Even though the technology has evolved, and the nature of the distractions we see and hear has changed, what we know from the science is that the process that occurs in our brains while we (unconsciously) ‘decide’ whether or not to become distracted is exactly the same as it was for our fathers and grandfathers taking that road trip.
We only see the different, not the familiar
Put simply, once we are exposed to certain things for extended periods of time, such as noises or particularly smells, we are likely to not only stop being offended by them, but we may stop noticing them altogether.
The success of the Febreze campaign started by convincing us that it cured a problem we didn’t know we had (an age old sales trick). It convinced us that we had no idea how offensive our home odours were (and by default, that we had need of their product.)
A great example of storytelling in marketing.
Desensitisation happens — which you’ll know if you go to the house of a pet-owner perhaps. Pet owners get used to (and even got to love) the smell of the dog or the rabbit, but a non-pet owner will be more affected.
Similarly with smoking — non-smokers are repelled at the stale cigarette smell that lingers on furniture and curtains. Those who smoke don’t notice, because they are simply desensitised.
How does background noise affect concentration?
And this is true with noise: city dwellers can often sleep night after night – some for life – despite the ambient noise of traffic or aircraft a rural dweller could not tolerate.
As the old Darwin theories state, we naturally adapt to our environments as we change. This allows us to compete in society and survive and thrive while others may not be able to ‘keep up’.
These same theories and concepts are relevant today, even as the idea of work and providing has been completely reinvented to mean office hours and competitive wages, not hunting and surviving.
As city dwellers continue to tune out noise, so rural dwellers tune out sounds of nature such as rustling crops, animals or owls at night. We become less aware of what is familiar.
But what about other noises, such as music? How is it that some people listen to music while they write while others can’t tolerate the sound of a dishwasher?
The answer, again, is familiarity.
The science of distraction
Going back to the desensitisation theory, the words of an extremely familiar song may not be as distracting as those of a new song. And it’s the same for beats, rhythms and other patterns in music.
The ever popular ‘Mozart improves thinking,’ theory (or old wives tale) is, in fact, wrong. Whether you listen to Metallica or Mozart, researchers at the University of Ohio found that music can have a negative effect on decision making, but the type of music makes little difference.
And what you listen to has an impact — familiar sounds will always be less distracting, apart from one exception; and that is when they are associated with sad memories or emotions such as fear or anxiety. A reminder of that emotional experience can take our focus away from the task we are doing.
The role of emotion
Emotion plays a big role in our sensitivity to distraction.
As ever, the reality is more complex and it turns out that a certain level of anxiety is necessary, rather than inhibiting, and for some people it helps them focus.
Sussman, Heller and Miller and Mohanty found that when showing stressful images such as an aggressive dog or a cemetery, focus was somewhat stimulated or even not affected. And, conversely, positive and neutral distractors were associated with poor task-relevant attention.
So, with this in mind, what should we do to create the best environment to reduce distractions and remain focused?
Solutions to noise distraction
Given all of this science, what, practically, can we do to make sure we have the right level of distraction for maximum creativity and productivity?
Here are our top four solutions that have proven to work when handling distractions:
- Music: forget Mozart and Beethoven. Each person is distracted differently. Note what does and doesn’t distract you, and go from there. There is no magical, musical arrangement that will improve your writing while listening. Listen to what you enjoy — and that may even be silence.
- Familiarity is key. Familiar sounds may not distract you, and this often comes into play with situations like the need to ‘tune out’ traffic noise. Some of you won’t even notice it. Other familiar sounds are not likely to distract you, either, and this can be used as an advantage. Having trouble getting motivated? Play your favorite song for a small dopamine rush, and you’ll most likely find you can write throughout the song without the words being distracting.
- Music can still be distracting. A great song, even one without lyrics, can still be distracting. Maybe you haven’t heard the song before? Or haven’t heard it in a while? If this is the case, your brain will mark it as new — and therefore will want to focus on the song, not on the task at hand. This is exactly why some people swear by certain kinds of music — because, when it becomes familiar, it becomes less distracting.
- Some noises will always distract. Chatty coworkers, cellphones and other communication driven noises will always be a distraction. Yes, you have heard the ringer on your phone for years now, and the noise itself shouldn’t be a distraction. However, your cell phone ringer is psychologically associated with a certain result. For example, is it often business clients who call? Or your spouse? Whatever it is the ringing phone will automatically prompt your brain to go there. Is it often friends who call to chat or share positive news? If so, you’ll be distracted by the thought of a rewarding chat from a friend.
Overall, the best way to master distractions is to monitor them. Keep track of your productivity with and without certain noises, and in certain environments.
You’ll most likely find that although everyone is different to a certain degree, you’re still responding the way the science predicts. And, once you know this, you can use it to your advantage.
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