We've previously pointed out tools like SimplyNoise for the generation of white noise to drown out other sounds. The Scientific American suggests that, for some workers, steady background noise might actually increase stress levels and impair working memory.
As Boing Boing blogger David Pescovitz points out, there's lots of research and anecdotal evidence to suggest some knowledge workers benefit from having a steady stream of sounds that cover up interrupting voices and other sounds. Then again, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health suggests that background noise agitates stress-related issues in some workers, and doesn't get better over time:
Several studies have indicated that stress resulting from ongoing white noise can induce the release of cortisol, a hormone that helps to restore homeostasis in the body after a bad experience. Excess cortisol impairs function in the prefrontal cortex-an emotional learning centre that helps to regulate "executive" functions such as planning, reasoning and impulse control. Some recent evidence indicates that the prefrontal cortex also stores short-term memories. Changes to this region, therefore, may disrupt a person's capacity to think clearly and to retain information.
It's a bit too pat to simply write "To each their own" and be done with it, but it should be said that if you feel like you're having a hard time concentrating at work, or feeling heightened anxiety or stress, consider whether the sounds of the workplace might be more tolerable than the very soft music or noise generator you're trying to make do with. And try to eliminate the non-specific sources of white noise, like air conditioners, fans and other low-level thrumming, wherever you can.
What's your experience with white noise versus general sounds in the office? Do noise generators help your concentration, or has the science never matched up with reality?
How does background noise affect our concentration? [Scientific American via Boing Boing]