White Noise generates random background sounds to replace the background sounds you already have, but don't want. Besides playing actual white noise, this app also plays brown, pink, blue and violet noise as well as other sounds, including 6 different intensities of rainstorm.
Even in my relatively quiet reading room, there was a surprising variety of annoying background noises this weekend, and White Noise did a fine job of covering them all. This got me to thinking about another topic from the same podcast, where Scott and Alex debated whether there were optimal background sounds for different activities. What would be the best background for dictating ICU chest films?
I listen to a lot of audiobooks and podcasts when performing mindless tasks like laundry, dishwashing or commuting. However, I find these way too distracting for cognitive work like film interpretation. So, I designed a quick and dirty controlled study on myself (n = 1), pitting White Noise against three different styles of music: Cajun/swing (Red Stick Ramblers), heavy metal (Metallica), and baroque (Glenn Gould playing Bach's Goldberg Variations).
My results are summarized in the bar chart above, where the vertical axis shows the number of minutes it took me to read 10 ICU chest cases while listening to a particular background. Despite my dubious experimental design, the results are intriguing: I seem to be about twice as efficient while listening to Bach as I am while listening to Cajun/swing. Just in case the first run of Bach was a fluke, I did an additional run of 10 films on a few more of the Goldberg variations. This second run was pretty similar to the first Bach run. However, before I could replicate runs on other styles of music, I ran out of films to interpret.
Taking this at face value, maybe these results are not so surprising. Maybe Lewis Thomas was right when he said:
Music is the effort we make to explain to ourselves how our brains work. We listen to Bach transfixed because this is listening to a human mind.A quick googling of this topic shows that I am not the first to tread this ground. I quickly found a paper by Cassidy and MacDonald, titled "The effect of background music and background noise on the task performance", published in 2007 in the journal Psychology of Music (vol. 35; pp 517-537). One of their conclusions:
In conclusion, the current study has highlighted the detrimental effect of sound (noise and music) on task performance, in comparison to silence...
(Oops -- forgot to collect data for silence alone...)
They also found that introverts (e.g. radiology nerds) find music and noise more distracting than extroverts (e.g. orthopedic surgeons). Hmmm...
I also ran across a recent article on the work of Warren Brodsky of Ben-Gurion University, who has studied the effects of music on high-risk driving behavior. In a nutshell: fast music makes you drive faster -- and less safely.
For example, while listening to a piece of music, drivers are immersed in much cognitive work including aural analysis and processing of the music components at various levels related to understanding, operations of short- and long-term memory, emotions, and of course extra-musical associations which continually surface from music stimuli.In other words, music may not relax your brain -- it may make it work even harder.
Nevertheless, I'm not quite ready to give up on music just yet. So, to add some rationality to my rationale, I'll collect some more data the next time I'm on call. Just in case silence is actually golden, I will add an arm to the study in which I dictate to silence alone. However, despite the growing evidence that background music is distracting, I secretly hope that Bach wins again.