Why Coffee Shops Spur Your Creativity

To optimise creativity, how quiet or noisy should your workspace be?  Hans Villarica presents new evidence on this question on TheAtlantic.com:

“Researchers led by Ravi Mehta conducted five experiments to understand how ambient sounds affect creative cognition. In one key trial, they tested people’s creativity at different levels of background noise by asking participants to brainstorm ideas for a new type of mattress or enumerate uncommon uses for a common object.

Compared to a relatively quiet environment (50 decibels), a moderate level of ambient noise (70 dB) enhanced subjects’ performance on the creativity tasks, while a high level of noise (85 dB) hurt it. Modest background noise, the scientists explain, creates enough of a distraction to encourage people to think more imaginatively.

So the next time you’re stumped on a creative challenge, head to a bustling coffee shop, not the library. As the researchers write in their paper, ‘[I]nstead of burying oneself in a quiet room trying to figure out a solution, walking out of one’s comfort zone and getting into a relatively noisy environment may trigger the brain to think abstractly, and thus generate creative ideas.'” (Read more here.)

I’ve written before (in this Time.com article, for example) about studies that show that low-level noise in the office can actually harm performance. The important thing about coffee shop noise—which I know many people do find stimulating—is that it’s chosen, it’s under your control: you made the decision to go there. Also, the conditions that are ideal for coming up with new ideas may not be the same as  conditions that are ideal for carrying out other kinds of tasks—say, very intense, focused work that demands great concentration.

How about you? Do you work best with a buzz in the background, or do you require absolute quiet?

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