I came by an interesting post today on Facebook, from the Creative Post about a study (I am yet to read, but very curious) which suggests that coffee shop ambience fosters creative intellectual labour. The story goes as so – as more and more independent creative contracts are moved to the cafe instead of to the (home) office there is a new ‘normal’ for creative workflow. Apparently ambient cafe noise at around 70dB is optimally productive, while levels pushing the 80dB are distracting (not to mention harmful, given the average laptop worker spends over 3 hours in a cafe).
I’m reading this in a cafe called The Bean in Mid-town Manhattan NYU, right across the Strand bookstore, and below we see the sound levels, which are in the mid-70s. So even according to the author of the original article this is a bit high. The problem is it’s hard to find a place that hovers at the flat 70dB mark. In my, now over four-year long extensive ‘study’ of North American coffee shops, it is quite rare to find a place that comes in at any less than high-60s dB. In fact, a popular ‘working’ cafe with all the ‘fixin’s’ – constant coffee machine turnover, steam, dishes, lots of voices, shuffling of chairs, background music – typically measures at mid-70s to 80dB. According to worksafe regulations, regular working exposure to sound at a magnitude of 85dB or over causes hearing loss over time. If we spend more and more working time in cafes, I ask then, why don’t we care more about the levels of sound we expose ourselves to? And what about those who work in cafes and restaurants? Restaurants are even louder than cafes, in my experience, based on past measurements.
In fact, not only isn’t anyone bothered (ok, I know that’s an overstatement) but people seem to like loud-ish environments to do creative work in. The article also pointed to a website called Coffitivity, which showcases an app, or rather a ‘revolution’ I think in productivity apps. Coffitivity offers the light ambience of a cafe for the creative worker who is getting writer’s block or coming up dry in the creativity department in the silence of their home. In fact, Coffitivity cite a paper that suggests some levels of noise is positive and productive for creative pursuits. The Creative Post article actually rallies against cafe noise, however, instead advocating ‘rain’ apps. That’s right, apps that play you an ambient rainscape that you can control in terms of intensity and type of rain. I am writing about this today because I’m just caught totally incredulous and open-mouth about this. It reminds me of the time I first heard about white noise machines for sleeping. The idea of adding undifferentiated constant sound when I need silence to sleep seemed like the strangest idea.
So, having grown up in a ‘keep-silence’ type of educational environments I cringe at the idea of adding ambient noise to my workflow in order to squeeze more creativity out of myself. Especially given that I hate the sound of North American cafes and whenever I am there I work ‘despite’ the noise, not because of it (or at least that’s what I tell myself). But I am starting to think there is something to the idea of sound levels and intellectual labour. In the past six months I’ve been intensively writing my dissertation at a work group on one of the SFU campuses. A public space, which albeit quiet, is still distracting. I’ve been listening to music on headphones while I work, and over time I noticed, when I turn it down I am much more distracted by it then when I turn it up past a certain level. Past that level my brain somehow puts it in a different category and it functions concurrently with thinking/writing instead of competing with my brainwaves. Very strange for me, because I am so fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of pumping noise into my ears in order to drown out distractions. It’s like a metaphor for urban noise – because the idea of eliminating it seems impossible, we instead focus on managing and counteracting it with other noise. And then again, maybe we haven’t eliminated city noise because we do in fact function better with it somehow.