In the previous blogs we have assessed the ‘personal’ aspects of cognitive performance, such as hydration, breakfast, exercise, and caffeine. Now, it’s time to look at external factors, starting off with noise.

Everyone knows noise can be a big disruptor, but the right amount of background noise can also help an individual to focus. Researchers have found that when the demand of work is high, noise is a big disruptor – it is seen as an additional ‘load’, requiring extra attention to combat its distraction. But, when the task is easy, some distracting noise can further reduce the demand on our brains.

Different types of noise can affect the working person in different ways. There are many factors that have to be taken into account – the nature of the task being carried out, the person’s ability to cope with noise, how loud it is, and how long the noise last, and of course, what kind of noise it is; background noise, speech or music.

Studies have shown that if someone is exposed to continuous noise at 75-80dB (a conversation is typically around 70dB), their performance decreases, as the task requires more attention. It is easier to concentrate when there is a group of conversations, as the brain is not focusing on one conversation, so the noise becomes a ‘babble’.

Music, depending on the task at hand, can also improve cognition and performance. If the task is repetitive and routine, music with lyrics can help concentration, and reduce the demand on our brain. However, if the task requires more concentration, music with lyrics has a negative effect on concentration and attention. Silence is best in this situation, as it allows the brain to concentrate on the task. Different genres of music can also affect concentration levels. Genres like Rock can put employees on edge, and make it harder to focus.

Speech has proven to be the biggest disruptor. Being able to clearly hear a conversation, whether or not you actually want to tune in to what is being said is extremely distracting. This is because the ‘working memory’ is particularly susceptible to speech so it always takes priority over other information being processed. Hearing one loud person talk can be more distracting than hearing a conversation between two. Overhearing a conversation between two can be distracting, but can also form part of the ‘babble’, whereas hearing one loud person disrupts concentration and has a negative impact on short term memory. ‘Halfalogue’ speech (overhearing one side of a conversation on a mobile) is more disruptive than being able to hear both sides of the conversation, as the brain is trying to focus on what the conversation is about.

Choose a place in the office where you can get the conditions you need for the task at hand. Most people don’t need pin-drop silence when they’re doing their daily tasks, but when their workload needs more concentration, it’s best to find quieter work station designated for concentrated work. If your office design doesn’t allow you to change work stations, you could try noise cancelling headphones or listen to instrumental music (it’s less distracting than vocal music).

Wearing headphones to listen to music regularly could make you more productive, however, you do run the risk of missing out on potentially important conversations, and not being able to interact with colleagues so smoothly.

Noisy work: Virgingroup.com
Woman with headphones; Boston.com