We are surrounded by sound. From coworker chit-chat to the sounds of traffic outside to that tinny trace of music coming from a co-commuter's earbuds, we often don't consider the noise that makes up our daily environments. But the truth is that the distant jackhammers, incessant elevator bells and even the whistling and humming of the people around us can have a real effect on our health and wellness.
As pioneering noise researcher and environmental psychologist Arline Bronzaft, Ph.D., of the City University of New York has said, noise is in the ear of the beholder. “While the ear picks up the sound waves and sends it to the temporal lobe for interpretation, it’s the higher senses of the brain that determine whether that sound is unwanted, unpleasant or disturbing.”
Read on to learn more about how noise affects your well-being.
Noisiness can affect children's abilities to learn
In a classic study of sound levels and learning, researchers followed two classrooms at an elementary school in Inwood -- a New York City neighborhood with an elevated train. Children who were assigned to classrooms that faced the tracks fell nearly a year behind in their studies when compared to children assigned to the "quiet" side of the building, which faced a courtyard.
Why? Simple: The noise was disruptive enough to teacher thinking that the teachers actually taught 11 percent less of the time in the noisy classrooms, according to lead researcher, Bronzaft. To further prove the learning-noise connection, Bronzaft went back to the school after transit workers had added sound-mitigating pads on the rails and school officials had added sound-absorbing insulation panels to the classroom ceilings, reported The New York Times. She found that reading levels -- a measure of educational achievement -- had equalized between the two classroom groups.
And more recent research has linked academic and development delays to chronic noise from nearby flight paths, railways and highways. Children who live near transportation noise are more likely to test poorly for language and cognitive skills and have lower reading scores, according to a review of studies conducted by the World Health Organization.
Sound makes you less productive at work
In a recent article about open office plans, Maria Konnikova revealed in The New Yorker that 70 percent of offices have an open floor plan. And that, of the many health drawbacks to this architectural trend (including an increased spread of illness and a lack of a sense of control over one's environment), the most unfortunate result of open offices is the way sound causes a drop in productivity.
Researchers have found that the particular sound mix of many open-plan offices inhibits employees' abilities to recall information and perform basic tasks, like arithmetic. Why? Rather than simple distraction, the noise of an open office causes actual stress. In a lab study of professional women in which open office-level noise was simulated, researchers found that workers' epinephrine levels were higher than in the control -- indicating some stimulation of the "fight or flight" response. The participants subsequently were asked to complete a series of unsolvable puzzles. Those in the stressed group made fewer attempts to solve them, indicating reduced motivation.
A noisy neighborhood could actually kill you
Chronic exposure to neighborhood noise, especially if it includes transportation noise like overhead airplane landings or railway activity, may lead to higher blood pressure and increased risk of fatal heart attack, according to a 2011 report by the World Health Organization and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre.
Noise is especially disruptive for multitaskers
We already know that multitasking doesn't actually work, but that doesn't mean you can't get worse at it. When we multitask, we are less able to block out distractions, according to Stanford University cognitive neuroscientist Anthony Wagner. And that's particularly true for "irrelevant environmental stimuli," like office noise and coworker distractions. In other words, if you're multitasking in your noisy, open office (and who isn't?), you'll have a harder time getting back to what you were doing before the interruption.
Listening to music doesn't make it better
Many people use music to drown out the sounds in their environment that they don't like. Unfortunately, that's not a great plan: While music boosts mood and can make you more alert, listening to music can actually impair your ability to recall information. Of note, listening to music you don't like is better for memory recall than music you do like, but music of any kind has nothing on the memory-boosting benefits of silence.
Sound can actually make you less likely to take care of yourself
In the study that linked open office noise to stress, researchers also found that the women who experienced office noise were less likely than those sitting in quiet environments to make natural ergonomic adjustments to how they were sitting. The noisy environment contributed to hunching over one's work-station, which can lead to problems like carpal tunnel and back pain down the line.
Sound may be responsible for the "haunted house" effect
You don't believe in ghosts, but your hair still stands on end and you do perceive some spookiness in certain environments. Why? According to a team of British researchers, there is some evidence to suggest that infrasound -- sound that is slightly below human perception -- can also cause effects like chills and anxiety.
In a study, researchers played four contemporary songs for study participants, some of which had an additional layer of infrasound. Nearly a quarter of the participants reported an unusual reaction to the music with infrasound, including experiencing chills down the spine or feeling uneasy, sad or fearful.
“Some scientists have suggested that this level of sound may be present at some allegedly haunted sites and so cause people to have odd sensations that they attribute to a ghost -- our findings support these ideas,” said Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, in his presentation to the British Association science conference.