It’s Not Just the Caffeine: Why Coffeeshops Spur Creativity

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To optimize 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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9 Responses to “It’s Not Just the Caffeine: Why Coffeeshops Spur Creativity”

  1. I whole-heartily agree! But then again, I am a musician; so concentrating with lots of sounds going on around me seems natural and easy. But the library vs coffee shop example is spot on – I spent very few hours in the library while in school (research and listening mainly) but much more time at the cafe or common “busy” area talking music, sharing ideas, and basically being ‘creative’.

    When it was time to design the Dallas School of Music, we opted not for ‘sound-proof’ rooms but for standard office spaces that would allow our students to hear other players, teachers, and lessons going on around them. Nearly every student loves it.

    And as far as working at DSM and DLP – the air is full of all sorts of sounds. The only time it’s a ‘distraction’ is when a great performance stops me dead in my tracks – well worth it. :)

  2. anniempaul says:

    I love that image, Eugene, of a music school that’s filled with the sounds of people practicing and performing. That’s how it should be!

  3. fatty says:

    i tottally agree .personally very quite atmosphere only gives me great opportunity to think about problems i’m trying hard to forget or it raises my desire for day dream or something like this i really find it hard to concentrate on my task .as an evidence ;when i’m at home preparing my lessons -i’m a teacher of english-i usually turn on tv or radio ;even if i’m nnot listening.

  4. Annie, I think that your key point here is that it’s a matter of choice and control. I believe that the brain can learn to associate certain types of noise with productivity and other types of noise with distraction–you can reach a point where the buzz of a cafe of the industrial hum of an office is a trigger for the type of thinking you need.

    I find that I’m usually pretty impervious to being distracted by noise–with the possible exception of TV noise, such as when my kids are watching Disney Channel shows with annoying laugh tracks!

    If I’m writing a book or an article, I have an iTunes playlist that I created that works well for me: It’s all-instrumental, quietly energetic music with a little bit of a hypnotic feel. If I have do more menial, mindless work, then I like high-energy, fun music–it helps me keep up the pace when tasks are less interesting but need to get done.

    My overall feeling is that it’s pretty hard in this era for most people to be able to work in real silence and without interruption. The key is to do what you can to create the ambience that works for you and let go of what you can’t control.

  5. Andrew says:

    Funny, I’ve always seemed to be able to work better on a paper, study, or write an exam with some of my favourite music playing in the background…..


  6. anniempaul says:

    Interestingly, Andrew, although research shows pretty conclusively that having TV on in the background, or doing things like emailing or surfing the web while working, is detrimental to one’s focus and attention, music seems to be a possible exception to the general rule that multitasking always reduces performance.

  7. Faith says:

    The average buzz of a coffee shop under certain circumstances can be beneficial in my creative processes. However, if I’m faced with the daunting task of taking on research or studies I struggle in maintaining focus with, coffee shop buzz won’t do. I’m naturally friendly and I have the aura that begs conversation. Random people are attracted to me like a magnet. :)

  8. janine says:

    I thought it was just because I grew up in the French environment of Montreal, but since high school, I’ve always done my best work in cafes. Part of the reason I think is that there are ready made instant distractions: I can look at other people and imagine stories about them as a kind of 30 second mini-break and then get back to my work refreshed.

  9. Kenn says:

    Janine, I totally agree with your mini-breaks!! I do the EXACT same thing! I think it’s brillian how quickly it allows the mind to refresh! If I try to do the same at home, I wander off into a long-lasting drama about all the problems in life that I have. Nicely said janine :)

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