• Question: Some people seem to like a noisy environment whist they are learning and others quiet. Do we know why this is other than personal preference? Is anything happening in the brain of one and not the other because of the effect of the environment, please?

    Asked by smarks1 to Anna, Catriona, Daniel, Katherine, Michael on 14 Apr 2015.
    • Photo: Catriona Morrison

      Catriona Morrison answered on 14 Apr 2015:

      That’s certainly true, but, in actual fact, a quiet environment is best for everybody. Many of us feel like we need some ambient noise – it can be too quiet – but this isn’t best for learning. So you’re right about personal preference, because that’s what it boils down to. In terms of the physiological processes in the brain, they are the same; and will benefit from a static and noise-free environment.

    • Photo: Anna Simmonds

      Anna Simmonds answered on 14 Apr 2015:

      Difficulty understanding speakers in a noisy environment, particularly for children, the elderly and non-native speakers, has been shown in a number of studies. It’s hard to concentrate on what one person is saying when there’s a lot of other conversations going on at the same time. The brain response to speech processing is usually seen in the left hemisphere, but in a noisy environment the right hemisphere is recruited as well. Some studies also suggest that long-term exposure to noise has a lasting effect on the way the brain responds to speech processing.

      This open access paper is a mini review of research investigating effects of noise exposure on children’s cognitive performance. The focus is on noise from passing aircraft, rather than just ambient classroom sound, but the effects showed that noise affected performance not only in auditory tasks but also reading tasks.
      Klatte et al., 2013, Frontiers in Psychology http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00578/full

    • Photo: Michael Thomas

      Michael Thomas answered on 14 Apr 2015:

      I agree that optimising the conditions of the learning environment is an important way to help children in the classroom. Sensory noise can particularly impact children with developmental language impairments, who can struggle to hear what the teacher is saying.

      But I also agree with the questioner that people appear to differ about their preferences for noise while studying. It kind of depends on what we mean by noise, though. Some like the babble of conversation, some music, some white noise. And most probably the effects are task-specific. Certainly, research shows that we perform more poorly on cognitive tasks if our attention is divided.

      I suspect there is more neuroscience research to be done on the role of noise. Neural systems are intrinsically noisy. A lot of current research focuses on temporal oscillations in brain activity, and these oscillations can sometimes be entrained to sensory input. A principle of brain function is competition between different neural systems to drive behaviour, and a recent line of research investigates how the brain’s internal ponderings (the so-called default network) compete with activity stimulated by the external world (the so-called task-positive network).

      Perhaps predictable sensory input from the world keeps the perceptual systems busy and content while the mind is engaged in a particular introspective task, so that the senses less readily ‘prick up their ears’ to input from the environment and distract you from your thoughts. There is more research to be done!