The typical office is often alive with the sounds of clacking keyboards, ringing phones, and people chatting.
To some, those noises are often stressful distractions that can make it difficult to concentrate. Some research has shown these auditory distractions impair a person’s ability to listen and recall information.
To help diminish the inevitable sounds of a workplace, many open-air offices use white noise, or random, steady-state electronic noise. This technique, known as sound masking, uses small speakers throughout the office to broadcast white noise. This is done to help people concentrate and keep conversations private.
“If you're close to someone, you can understand them. But once you move farther away, their speech is obscured by the masking signal,” said Jonas Braasch, an acoustician and musicologist at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in New York.
But new research suggests that playing nature sounds, such as flowing water, can help improve moods and stimulate creative thinking.
Sounds of Nature May Improve Mood, Creativity
Office environments are inundated with their own noise, along with outside distractions of busy traffic noises or the dreaded elevator music.
Prior research shows that moderate noise around 70 decibels — about the same as a chatty classroom — can enhance a person’s performance on creative tasks more than lower levels of noise. Louder noises, however, such as 85 decibels or more (the sound of a freight train passing) hurts creativity, the research found.
A small study conducted in 2010 found background noise improved performance for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder but worsened performance for children without attention problems.
Researchers at RPI are testing whether masking these sounds with naturally occurring sounds — a babbling stream, rain, birds chirping, etc. — have a better impact on office workers’ ability to concentrate and be more creative.
Building on prior research that showed nature sounds improved focus, Braasch and his team experimented further on how the sounds of nature impact office workers.
In their ongoing work, researchers expose 12 people to three different sounds: typical office noises, office noises coupled with white noise, and offices noises with nature sounds. During the experiment, subjects were given a task that required them to pay close attention.
The nature sounds used were designed to mimic the sound of a mountain stream.
“The mountain stream sound possessed enough randomness that it did not become a distraction,” RPI researcher Alana DeLoach said in a press release. “This is a key attribute of a successful masking signal.”
The researchers hope to determine if the nature sounds make employees more productive by putting them in a better mood. They say positive findings could have benefits beyond boosting office productivity.
“You could use it to improve the moods of hospital patients who are stuck in their rooms for days or weeks on end,” Braasch said.
The RPI experiments were part of the Acoustical Society of America’s annual meeting held this week in Pittsburgh.
The Connection Between Nature and Creativity
But using sound to mimic nature is just the beginning when it comes to how the great outdoors can affect mood.
Electronic light is one of humankind’s greatest achievements and makes modern living possible. But, it can disrupt a person’s circadian rhythm, or the body’s sleep-wake clock. This translates to difficulty sleeping, decreased alertness during the day, and overall malaise due to changes in melatonin levels.
A study published in 2013 found that one week of camping can help restore the body’s internal biological clock. After a week of camping in Colorado without smartphones or even flashlights, research subjects, who typically went to bed after midnight, reported going to bed two hours earlier and feeling more refreshed.
Outdoor excursions like this have also been used to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder, behavioral disorders, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.