Inspiration:Why Ambient Noise Makes You More Productive (And Three Apps That Do It Right)

原文刊载于:The Economist Intelligence Unit(经济学人智库)

There are hundreds of white noise apps on the App Store, but only some of them helped us focus on our writing. Here’s a bit of science behind the mechanism at work, and the best apps we found for putting it in practice.

Too restless for silence, I have long been on the hunt for the perfect mood music for writing. So when I found myself using the new iOS app Thunderspace more and more to help me focus and stay productive, I started wondering why it worked so well.

It’s not that I was skeptical of Thunderspace at first—it’s just that I didn’t care how this gloried white-noise app worked under the hood. Lots of people work with some sort of ambient noise, thinking it makes them more productive. Thunderspace made me wonder if the theory was actually proveable.

Researchers Ravi Mehta, Rui (Juliet) Zhu, and Amar Cheem—who don’t make apps, but had the same question—tested the hypothesis, filling in some big holes around sound research along the way.

Publishing “Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition,” in the Journal of Consumer Research, they did indeed find that a moderate level of ambient noise actually does boost creativity for most people. So I redoubled my hunt for ambient noise apps. Here’s what I found.

First, quality matters. The Thunderspace app comes courtesy of the same people who do the weather app Haze, as well as the Emmy-award winning nature sound recordist, Gordon Hempton. There are two factors that set it apart from other “rain sounds,” of which there are hundreds. First is that the storms were recorded in stereoscopic 3-D, designed for headphones at an impressive 256kpbs AAC. Also, despite the high-quality sound, the app came in under a 50mb download, a sign the developer was deliberate with the design and resources.

Coffitivity, the website and app with sounds of a coffee shop, was actually primarily based off the ambient noise research. Meant to re-create the coffee shop experience and the creativity boost many get from working in that environment, Coffitivity plays different coffee shop scenes such as “morning murmur” or “lunchtime lounge.” Filmmaker Carl Willat, who’s done visual effects for films like Flubber and Across The Universe, said that one of best places he found to get work done was a cafe in Rome. “It had just the right amount of foot traffic, combined with the unintelligible [to me] Italian being spoken.”

Speaking with Willat, he also mentioned that when not in Rome, he typically works at a Starbucks, not because of the coffee, but because “They’re often so bland and uninteresting, it’s easier to focus your thoughts.” You can use Coffitivity for free via a desktop or mobile web browser, or you can use it offline with apps in both the Mac App Store and iOS App Store.

Ambiance has been around a long time, making a debut on the iOS App Store almost from the beginning. The biggest advantage it has is the diversity of the sounds it offers through its sound store. In terms of creativity-boosting sounds, the category “Urban Sounds” offers almost any location you could imagine. From a restaurant kitchen, airport lounge, or shopping mall all the way to a community pool or high school setting. If you’re someone who needs a specific type of ambient noise to get your work done and be your most creative, Ambiance may well be worth the $2.99.

Upon reading this article, Professor Walrus, being a gentleman of some years, noted that he has observed the ambient noise phenomenon for decades. There have always been those who work best in crowds and those who demand total, monk-like, isolation. Writers seem especially particular about their work environments. In A Moveable Feast, he reminded me, Hemingway recounts his need for separate watering holes for work and for meeting friends. If an acquaintance happened upon him while writing, the spot was ruined for him, and he’d have to find a new bar to regain his productivity. To overhear “genuine” conversation by habitués was “good,” Hemingway said, but conversation with friends made work impossible.

流行的观点认为安静的环境能帮助我们的精力更加集中,如要获得源源不断的创意,则需要屏蔽掉所有不必要的干扰。实际上,对于与创造力相关的任务,噪音可能更有帮助。

环境中的一切因素——噪音、照明,乃至天花板的高度或是色彩——无论我们是否自觉或不自觉地注意到,都会对我们产生影响。在这个研究中,我们专注研究背景噪音。本人和此篇论文的合著者在一次头脑风暴中偶然发现了这个现象:当我们处在一个安静的房间中抓耳挠腮时,我们决定去一家咖啡馆休息一下,然而在咖啡馆的环境中工作的我们却发现竟然要比安静的房间中更富有成效。这让我们开始思考某种独特的氛围,比如咖啡机和研磨机的噪音,以及人们下订单与闲谈的话语声是否让我们的思路更灵活,思维更具创造力?带着这个疑问,我们决定进行深入地研究与试验。

在其中一项试验中,我们将日常生活中发现的各种噪音收录下来并进行编辑,在实验室中播放,以模拟一种类似餐馆的环境;我们告诉被试者此举目的是为了研究人们在特定环境中的表现与思考方式。同时,我们在对其它环境因素进行有效控制的同时,将背景噪音分为三个不同的层次:高 – 85分贝(dB)、中 – 70分贝、低 – 50分贝。我们把被试者随机分配到其中的一种噪音情况,让其完成“远隔联想测试(Remote Associates Test-RAT)”任务。RAT是一个常用的衡量人创造力的测试;通常会给被试者一系列问题,每个问题中有三个或四个单词,被试者的任务是要想出与所有这些单词相关联的第四或第五个单词。例如,由“16”、“心(heart)”和“巧克力(chocolate)”几个单词可以关联到的答案是单词“甜(sweet)”。我们发现,在相同的规定时间内,人们在中度的噪声(70分贝)范围环境中相比低或高噪声环境中的被试者能够想出更多的正确答案。

这一结果似乎有悖常规,背景噪声实际上能使人们从其专注的任务中“分心”,而正是这种思路的“不流畅(disfluency)”释放了大脑,从而让我们能够更有创造性地思考。当你完全专注于某个特定的任务,思路会变得非常狭隘而不能跳出思维定势的“框框”,而创造性需要对现有刺激进行远隔关联,产生出新颖的想法。所以这种由噪音造成的“不流畅”反而能让我们的思绪从当前任务中暂时脱离,之后开始在一个更高或更抽象的空间进行思索。

该过程在人无意识的情况下瞬时发生,但这种“思绪游离”能让你的大脑从另外的角度产生新的想法来解决当前问题。通过统计被试者在限定时间内想出的解决办法,就能评估他们思路的活跃性;即解决办法越多,该参与者思路越灵活,因为他产生远隔联想的能力更强。

为进一步解释思路的“不流畅”这一概念,你可以想象自己在读一本书。这本书很有可能是用Times New Roman或Arial这种看起来十分舒服的字体印刷的,现在,我把它变成了另一种读起来费眼的字体。由此就造成了一种阅读的“不流畅”,因为你很难字对字、词对词的阅读了,所以无法全神贯注于当前的阅读任务,或者不能在短时间内读完。字体的变化分散了你对当前任务的注意力,这就是我们所说的“不流畅”,噪音所起的作用就是造成了这种“不流畅”。

但是噪音的效果并不总是“正向”的——中度噪音对创造性思维来说是有利因素,而当你专注于更细节的工作时,最好还是处于安静的环境。比如,如果你想更有效地记忆一些东西,任何噪音都有可能让你分心,从而更难吸收所要记忆的内容。

以下数据可供大家参考:安静的房间背景噪音约为40分贝,飞机起飞或建筑工地上使用手提钻的噪音约为90分贝;背景噪音每增加10分贝,远隔联想能力增强10倍。我们的实验用的中度噪音约为70分贝,重现了人们日常所处的商场或餐厅环境的背景噪音。

此外,要注意噪音与乐音的区分,前者是那些我们不想听到的声音,后者则可能是悦耳的背景音乐。事实上,音乐对人的认知有非常复杂的影响。我们发现音乐能产生“语义联想”(semantic associations)或“指涉意义”(referential meanings)。举例来说,如果一个旅行社的电台广告伴有快节奏的背景音乐,人们通常会感觉这个旅行社效率高,能快速解决问题;如果同一家旅行社放的是舒缓的音乐,人们自然会觉得这个旅行社办事周到,能够提供一个精细而独特的旅行指南。

在这方面,音乐的力量可以变得非常强大,尤其当言语信息并非必要时,声音会占据重要的地位。

通过一系列实验室和半实地实验,我们发现噪音不一定有害。事实上,一定量的噪音,只要保持适度强度,便有利于创造性思维的产生。

令人高兴的是,我们的研究成果推动了一个叫做“咖啡动力”(Coffitivity)的网站的建立。你可以在该网站下载类似“大学校园”、“晨读”和“午餐室”等声音,重现并模拟出某种特定环境。这样,你可以在理想的时间和地点建立一个属于你自己的“咖啡店”。该网站登上《时代》杂志2013年50强网站,其应用被《纽约时报》评为2013最受好评的应用之一。

当你完全专注于某个特定的任务,思路会变得非常狭隘而不能跳出思维定势的“框框”,而创造性需要对现有刺激进行远隔关联,产生出新颖的想法。所以这种由噪音造成的“不流畅”反而能让我们的思绪从当前任务中暂时脱离,之后开始在一个更高或更抽象的空间进行思索。

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