Silence Is Golden? White Noise, Coffee Shops, and the Learning Boost of Habituation

I’m writing this post at a Starbucks. Alex and I have been travelling a lot for residency interviews, and this Starbucks is right outside the building where I interviewed this morning. I wanted to recharge and get a little work done before heading to the airport. I used to think I had to be in my home office to do good work, but these days, small pockets of productivity—wherever I can find them—help me feel like I’m achieving goals and staying focused even when I’m off my routine and away from my space.

One perk of working in a coffee shop is the natural ambient noise. I love that murmur of background noise when I work. When I’m at home, I like to use a Chrome plugin called Noisli to simulate the gentle sounds of coffee date conversations, clinks of cups on saucers, and people sitting and scooting. My secret ingredient is overlaying a little rain sound on top of the coffee shop. It makes me feel so cozy and comfortable.

You may have already heard of the miracle benefits of white noise. It’s been said to drown out distracting noises, prevent mind wandering and even enhance academic performance in kids with ADHD. A quick look at the literature shows that the research is inconclusive and the benefits are likely modified by the learner’s attention skills, but the theory behind it is interesting.

The idea is that your brain becomes accustomed to the white noise in the background. The attenuation of constant stimuli is a process called habituation. Habituation happens with all our senses. You were probably fully aware of the texture of your shirt when you pulled it on this morning, but now you barely notice it. This process makes sense, because we want to save our attention for the most novel and potentially dangerous stimuli. Some studies suggest this process of habituation augments any novel stimuli, such as learning cardiology for school or writing this article on my laptop. In other words, my focus is sharpened by the ambient noise in this Starbucks.

Even though the evidence is mixed, Alex and I certainly have our own preferences. In addition to Noisli, we’ve taken to playing The Great British Baking Show on low volume in our sunroom. It started during the holiday season, and now we can’t stop! I cannot tell you a single pastry they baked, but I still consider myself a fan of the show.

Do you like to study in silence? What’s your favorite white noise?

Check out The Pomodoro Technique: Your Key To A Productive Day for Alex’s description of the method that helped him manage medical school while competing in memory competitions.