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“White Noise” It is the Living End.

Working from home has many varied blessings. One of which is the peace and quiet, allowing thoughts to flow……..

Except when renovations are underway.

For the last few weeks, my mind has been subjected to the additional external stimuli of loud banging, power-saws, the radio playing at full blast and some fruity conversational interactions between the tradies, starting around 6.45 am each morning.

Is this distracting? Yes.
Has it impacted my ability to concentrate and focus on the task at hand? Just somewhat.

Noise is a form of stress and as we know stress is bad news for our thinking and our brain.

If we hear a sudden loud or unexpected noise such as a car back-firing or a police siren, we may respond with a startle reflex. Our body and mind is quickly alerted to the possibility of danger and the need to get out of the way. This is the classic flight or fight response.

The noise itself apart from making us jump, does us no harm.

But, what about chronic low level noise?

It is actually low-level ambient noise which does us the most harm in terms of affecting our ability to think clearly and retain information.

It’s the “white noise” as they say in the song, the noise from living in congested cities with road traffic noise. The sound of sirens, school play grounds and living under the flight path of aeroplanes.

And although we think we get used to it and take little notice, unfortunately
the effect on our brain continues and it does not habituate.

This leads the body to experience ongoing stress and induces cortisol release. Ongoing cortisol secretion impacts our brain by killing off brain cells (never a good thing) and reduces our brain cells ability to form new connections with each other. In particular, it impairs the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain used for executive decisions, planning and organisation and is thought to reduce dopamine levels to that area as well. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter important for regulating the transmission of information from other parts of the brain to the prefrontal cortex.

The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety in the United States has reported that ambient noise affects people’s health generally by increasing stress levels.

Again in the States, the American Census rated noise a higher problem than crime, litter, traffic or inefficient government.

In the workplace, low-level noise from working in open plan offices has been shown to lead to higher levels of stress and lower task motivation.

In one study, forty experienced female clerical officers (average age 37 years) were assigned to either a quiet office or one with low intensity noise. Those working in the noisier areas, experienced high levels of stress hormone (measured in urinary epinephrine levels), made 40% fewer attempts to solve a unsolvable puzzle and made only half as many ergonomic adjustments to their work stations. In other words their brains were stressed, so they were less willing or able to participate as well in work tasks, as those working in the quieter work areas.

And it’s not just adults in the workplace who may be disadvantaged from trying to work in noisy environments.

An Austrian study demonstrated how low level noise induced a stress level response (with raised heart rates and blood pressure) in children and could lead to an impaired ability to learn.

They looked at 115 kids in Grade 4. Half lived in quiet areas (sound level equivalent to 50 decibels,) Half lived in noisier areas.

The study showed that children subjected to chronic noise stress were more likely to demonstrate “learned helplessness”, a condition linked to poverty and some forms of depression. They simply don’t bother to make the effort or try.
Girls seem particularly at risk.

So, maybe we need to be aware of the ambient noise that surrounds us and our families on a day-to-day basis. Especially now that we understand that it is potentially causing us to think more poorly.

Are there any ways you can implement changes either in your own work place or at home, to help minimise the effect of ambient low level noise and assist our brain function?

I’d love to hear whether your work place has already implemented changes to enable staff and workers to work more easily in a quiet environment.

And remember we are talking about low-grade ambient noise, not jack hammers and rock concerts which can cause actual hearing loss.

“White noise, White noise,

All that I’m hearing from you…..”

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.


  • drjasonfox says:

    Oooh what a funky analogy Jenny! Love your message.One of the issues with students studying for exams with music on, is that the questions they get within an exam are more likely to trigger the memory of the music they were listening to, than the content they were supposedly studying.
    Can’t wait to interview you. I’ll organise that very soon! You have SUCH a good blog…!

  • Amy says:

    The other day in class I was wondering why I had difficulty getting started on goals for the day after exhausting myself on other projects. Stress undoubtedly has an effect on our efforts to move forward so we procrastinate. Of course this has nothing to do with listening to music while doing our homework, but this article uncovered many interested points. My brother could always listen to music, do his homework and make straight A’s. I couldn’t and I think I read somewhere that women are a little more subseptable to noise than men. Thanks for sharing.

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