Study of the Day: Why Crowded Coffee Shops Fire Up Your Creativity

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Yes, caffeine helps. But new research shows that the moderate noise level in busy cafés also perks up your creative cognition.

Study of the DayGlobal X/Flickr

PROBLEM: To optimize creativity, how quiet or noisy should your workspace be?

METHODOLOGY: 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.

RESULTS: 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. (Here's a helpful chart on typical noise levels.)

CONCLUSION: 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."

SOURCE: The full study, "Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition," is published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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