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Sssh. Quiet please: brains at work.

When we were first married, we lived in a tiny two-up two-down house in an area of Richmond, London known as “The Alberts”. These Victorian houses were originally built as homes for railway workers. A great location close the railway station (who would have guessed) to get up to London for work, and close enough to Richmond Park to get a much needed dose of fresh air and of course to see the deer.
 
It was also under one of the direct flight paths into Heathrow. It was a time when Concord was still flying and I remember still jumping in alarm every time I heard the “sonic boom”.

But most of the noise came from regular aircraft – every two minutes.

After a while we got used to the noise and we stopped “hearing” it during the day and it no longer kept us awake at night.

But noise is a stressor to the brain and many of us are exposed to a multitude of different sounds and noise on a daily basis. We may get “used” to it but the stressing effect to the brain remains.

There have been a number of studies into the impact of noise stress on our ability to think and the results speak for themselves.

In 2009 the Hyena Study (Hypertension and exposure to noise near airports) was published and revealed how exposure to aircraft and road traffic noise is an important contributor to cardiovascular disease leading to elevations in blood pressure (part of the body’s stress response) increased pulse rate and stress hormone release, even long after waking up.

Another report, this time from the World Health Organisation in 2011 revealed how only air pollution causes more damage to health than noise.

Another study showed how children living in noisier environments (close to main roads) performed less well academically compared to those children living in quieter suburbs. This was independent of social economic background and other factors.

Even without the external noises of traffic, cars back firing, horns tooting, aircraft flying overhead, there are other numerous noises in our home environment beyond the radio or TV, such as the fridge, the air conditioner unit, even a fish tank that all divert our brain’s attention from where else we might want to be focused. We become so used to these noises that we often don’t realize how much noise they are producing until they are turned off.

In evolutionary terms being able to distinguish noise kept us safe. Today our brain still treats these extraneous noises as potential threats, which is why our brain can’t stop “hearing” them, even though our conscious brain has stopped listening

At work, where open plan working is still commonplace and companies are now embracing activity based workplaces, it can be quite difficult to find a space that is quiet, where you won’t be interrupted in order to focus on that particular assignment or task.

So perhaps it is time to start taking noise more seriously. Rather than being considered a fuddy-duddy, or fun spoiler, providing our minds with noise free space is really important so as to produce our best thinking.

Do you find you need quiet space to think well?

How quiet is your work place and where do you go to do your special thinking?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Ref:
Environ Health Perspective. 2008 March; 116(3): 329–333.  Lars Jarup et al

2011_05_25_WHO_Burden_of_disease_KIM

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