Focus Better And Relax Deeply With Just Your Headphones. Listening To Empty Noise Really Works
An expert explains how listening to noises and binaural recordings can improve concentration and help you relax.
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The thesis really needs to be written. An important client needs a report of your work, and the pile of mandatory reading is not getting any smaller. You sit down to work for a while, but before you can write three sentences, you are interrupted by a car horn, an untidy closet or, last but not least, social media. Or, on the contrary, your work is done, but relaxation and rest do not come. In an extreme situation, you lie in bed, one hour follows another, and despite the deafening flow of thoughts, you only manage to fall asleep as the morning comes, and those few moments of sleep are not worth much.
All of us have at some point been in a situation where stress makes it difficult for us to concentrate, relax or fall asleep. There is usually not much time for long meditations and relaxation exercises, we need to solve our problem now.
Music has served as a way to relax and stimulate thoughts for decades. Listening to recordings of Mozart's compositions promised ambitious parents smarter children, in the 90s listening to a band Blur guaranteed similar results.
Our favorite music improves our mood and helps us concentrate better at work. However, some recordings can overwhelm our brain with the cadence of words, or make us feel like we would rather dance than do something slow and productive. In addition, with depressive and anxious songs, there may be even more tension than relaxation. Using headphones could therefore be ambient sounds, binaural recordings or noise.
Many people try to help themselves from anxiety states or improve their concentration by listening to white noise. The first to discover the benefits of listening to monotonous noise was sleepy businessman James K. Buckwalter, who, try as he might, could not sleep at night. In 1963, he sold the patent for the first "sound air conditioner" - a device that generates white noise. It was supposed to help induce sleep and overall relaxation, because it helped dampen the surrounding sound, or rather helped people to perceive it less.
In the book The Circadian Code, which deals with sleep hygiene, author Satchin Panda talks about how the white noise generator has become especially popular with people who live on a busy street, where outside noises can be heard irregularly, easily distracting people and waking up those who are sleeping / half-asleep people. According to Panda, some people use noise because they are used to a regular monotonous sound in another environment (for example, they fell asleep with cars regularly traveling on the highway and were unable to fall asleep without a similar monotonous sound).
Currently, white noise generators are replacing playlists on Spotify, or websites and applications that generate noise and promise better concentration and deeper relaxation. Almost 60 years since the invention of the first white noise machine, and even though the device has made its way from bedside tables to our phones, it seems that noise should have the same effect on the brain.
Helping the healthy population as well as people with attention deficit disorders
We asked psychologist Karolína Janků from the National Institute of Mental Health about the effect of listening to noise and ambient recordings on the human psyche, which often appear in advertisements on social networks. According to her, listening to a monotonous sound can really help both with anxiety and improve our concentration.
"White noise can help focus not only in the healthy population, but also in people with ADHD, a disorder that, among other things, is characterized by impaired attention. In one study, they showed that listening to noise can also be useful for patients in intensive care units, where it can help reduce stress and the associated arousal of the organism," explains Janků.
According to her, one of the main benefits of listening to seemingly boring noise is the reduction of ambient noise. Just as Buckwalter intended in the 1960s. We've probably all experienced an evening in a crowded restaurant where we couldn't even hear our own thoughts over other people's conversations. So we can recall the feeling that a noisy environment evokes in us. Listening to noise helps us ignore the surrounding sounds and relax in stressful situations.
"We can also use noise when falling asleep or during relaxation exercises. A natural source of noise can be found in nature in the form of the sound of water. It is no coincidence that many relaxing recordings contain the sounds of water, such as the sound of the sea, rain or the sound of a waterfall. However, we should not forget individual differences. What works for one person may not work for another. There are people who are rather irritated by these sounds and prefer silence," points out Janků.
According to her, listening to noise is also effective in the treatment of tinnitus, in which a monotonous whistling sounds in the ears. Long-term listening can help patients get used to tinnitus and reduce the anxiety that can be associated with it.
Pink, white or brown noise. How to choose?
There are several types of noise in playlists and in the real world. At first glance, comically distinguished noises by color can have a different effect on the human psyche. Brown noise is more likely to help relieve anxiety, on the other hand, pink or white noise can give us the necessary dose of concentration, because they can disturb the surrounding sounds.
The main difference between different colored noises lies in the frequency, but their inclusion also affects the tone and intensity. Individual factors then influence how we perceive the given sound. The brain distinguishes whether listening to it is disturbing or pleasant for us.“White noise contains low, medium and high frequencies. It most often resembles the sound of a waterfall or a hair dryer and is often used to mask disturbing sounds from the environment or to improve concentration. It can also help small children fall asleep."
"Conversely, pink noise tends to move in lower frequencies and resembles the sound of rain or wind. It may be more pleasant to listen to while falling asleep. Brown noise has only a low frequency and can be likened to gentle surf or rain during a thunderstorm. It can also be used for relaxation," explains Janků.
This is also used by the creators of recordings themselves, from which it is possible to choose the one that suits you best. Some people will be more comfortable with the noise itself without simulating natural (or artificial) sounds, others will feel better just listening to the sounds of a storm or rain.
In addition to the noises themselves, binaural recordings also promise deeper relaxation and a sharper mind. For them, the difference between the frequency of sound in one ear and in the other is characteristic. The recording usually sends high frequencies into your right ear, and sounds with a maximum wavelength of 30 Hz into your left ear. Here again, it is individual whether you are more comfortable with binaural recordings or listening to monotonous noise.
Binaural recordings are significantly younger and there is not yet a sufficient amount of data to compare them with listening to noise. According to Janků, one study suggests that binaural recordings might be slightly more effective compared to pink noise, but there are not enough studies.
How does noise affect our brain?
Listening to relaxing recordings, noises, sounds or binaural beats helps relaxation and concentration. But this is not a placebo effect. The sounds we listen to have an effect on the activity of the brain itself, which can be seen, for example, in EEG measurements.
"Listening to noise or binaural recordings can affect the activity of our brain, specifically the activity of our neurons. This has been repeatedly proven by research in which they measured brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG) while listening to recordings. Thanks to this measurement, we can find out how fast the brain's activity is, i.e. at what frequency it moves," explains Janků.
Individual frequencies are associated with specific states of consciousness. Therefore, if the brain moves in the alpha band (8-13 Hz), for example, it enters a state associated with relaxation or meditation. The frequencies are slow, so our head rests better.
“Faster activity in the beta (16-25 Hz) and gamma (>30 Hz) bands is shown by neurons when we are fully focused on a mental task, we are learning. Depending on what state we want to induce or support, we then choose a sound with a frequency that matches the brain's activity. If we want to promote relaxation, for example, we should choose a sound with a lower frequency, i.e. in the alpha band," advises Janků.
Relaxation hand in hand with productivity
Although it may seem from the above-described resolution of noise that we can either relax or concentrate, this is not entirely true. It's probably no secret that good performances go hand in hand with relaxation and rest. When you get a good night's sleep, you concentrate better than when you have to pass an important exam after staying up all night. So it is good to find a balance between free time and productive work.
On the other hand, we need to pay attention to what kind of noise we choose if we want to improve this or that area of our life. As Janků says, individual frequencies put our brain in a certain "mood". It either prepares it for performance, or for relaxation or sleep.
"It is necessary to take into account the frequency that the given sound has, and what frequency of brain waves we want to support by listening to it. As I already mentioned, if I want to promote relaxation, relaxation or meditation, I should choose a sound with a lower frequency. On the contrary, if I would like to support cognitive functions such as attention or memory, then it is better to listen to noise or sound with a higher frequency, such as beta or gamma," explains Janků.
"In recent years, noise has also been used in sleep research and ways to promote it. Our group within the Sleep and Chronobiology Research Center at the National Institute of Mental Health is also dealing with this. In this research, the application of pink noise is used directly during deep sleep. Low-frequency noise affects the natural slow-wave activity of neurons during sleep and should thereby deepen sleep. So far, this method is not at the stage where everyone could use it at home. The noise should be played only when our brain falls into a deep sleep. That's why this method is currently being tested in sleep laboratories," he adds.
Spotify, app or device?
There are several ways to start your journey to better concentration by listening to noises or binaural recordings. You can prefer a special application or a website (Brain.fm, My Noise or A Soft Murmur), or choose from an abundance of recordings on Spotify. The important thing is to know what kind of noise will suit you best, and gradually explore what suits you best. In addition to artificially generated sounds, natural sound sources can also help you (working on the beach to the sound of the roaring sea is relaxing in itself).
"Some will prefer applications, some will be satisfied with a natural sound source. Those who do not have access to nature have a lot of options to get such a sound even in the city with the help of applications or videos. It also certainly depends for what purpose one wants to use the recordings," adds Janků.
But it is extremely important to know why you are using sound. If you need to relax or focus, but don't have an attention deficit disorder or diagnosed anxiety, experimenting with publicly available recordings can help. However, if you live with one of the disorders, it is necessary to listen to the recordings and consult with an expert who will help you choose the right recording.
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