Could White Noise Help You Stay On Task?

 ADHD Weekly 2017-12-14

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Do you ever feel that you can think better and stay on task longer if there is some white noise in your surroundings—maybe softly playing music, a fan in the corner, or an overhead air conditioner running? There may be something to the idea that white noise is helpful for some people affected by the inattentive form of ADHD.

White noise has long been suggested as an aid for some people when it comes to falling asleep or staying asleep, and it is often recommended for people who have tinnitus, which is a ringing or buzzing in their ears. So far, research has suggested benefits for inattention but not for impulsivity, and has not shown benefits when white noise is no longer present. And of course, in practice, people cannot control the sounds that surround them throughout the day. Although researchers are exploring whether white noise may provide complementary support for some people with inattentive ADHD, the evidence so far is inconclusive.

White noise for a busy mind?

White noise refers to the background sounds often produced by devices around us, such as heating and cooling systems, refrigerators, fans, or computers. It can also be intentionally produced using sound machines. It is a steady, low, consistent sound that tends to fade into the background for most people. Similar to white noise is pink noise, which has reduced high frequencies. Typically coming from rainfall, breezes, or similar nature sounds, it seems to have a soothing effect for some people.

Researchers have recently taken existing information on white noise and the concept of “stochastic resonance,” which refers to random noise or sound causing an increase in signal transmission, and applying the concept to signaling among neurons in the brain. ADHD symptoms are related to a lower rate of signaling between neurons, when compared to brains unaffected by ADHD. Could certain sounds help to increase those signals and improve symptoms?

Research on white noise for children with inattentive ADHD

To understand better the idea of white noise being helpful for children affected by ADHD, researchers at Université Libre de Bruxelles in Brussels, Belgium, designed a small study with 30 children, between 7-12 years old, 13 of whom had an ADHD diagnosis and 17 who did not have a diagnosis. The children were given a series of memory and verbal tasks. Some of these tasks were completed while white noise was played and some were done without white noise or other sounds played.

The result: The children who had an ADHD diagnosis did better on their tasks when the white noise was played, as opposed to when there was no noise. The children who did not have ADHD did not do as well on their tasks when the noise was played, as opposed to when it was quiet. The researchers concluded that the white noise benefited the children who had ADHD and helped them to improve their performance on the memory and verbal tasks. Additionally, the researchers saw improvement with the white noise for both children who took medication and those who did not take medication as part of treatment.

The researchers also saw that among the children diagnosed with ADHD, the additional white noise improved the symptoms associated with inattention but had no effect or benefit on the symptoms related to hyperactivity.

"Our study shows that different brains need different levels of external noise to work properly," study researcher Göran B.W. Söderlund, PhD, says. He adds the findings could eventually have practical applications for students in school, to help them maintain attention and stay on task. 

Follow-up research shows promise but not consistent results

Other researchers are intrigued by these results and have undertaken similar studies, looking at the effects of both white noise and pink noise.

Effects of white noise on off-task behavior and academic responding for children with ADHD. A very small study, this looked at the effect of white noise in helping students stay on task. The students listened to the white noise through headphones. The researchers saw a decrease in off-task behavior when the students listened to the white noise, compared to only wearing headphones to block out other sounds. The researchers didn’t see an improvement in academic responses with either the white noise or the quiet headphones.

Environmental Stimulation Does Not Reduce Impulsive Choice in ADHD. This study looked specifically at pink noise and impulse control in ADHD. It compared 25 students with ADHD to 28 students who do not have ADHD, using choice delay tasks (a familiar example of a choice delay task is to offer a child one marshmallow to eat now or ask her to wait five minutes and she can have two marshmallows to eat). The children were given these tasks while listening to pink sound. The results: Children affected by ADHD made more impulsive choices than the unaffected children. The pink noise in the background did not reduce the impulsive choices of the children affected by ADHD.

The Effects of Different Types of Environmental Noise on Academic Performance and Perceived Task Difficulty in Adolescents With ADHD. In this study, researchers worked with 52 teenagers diagnosed with ADHD on reading accuracy and writing performance. They completed these tasks listening to either white noise or babbling voices. They found the teens who listened to white noise while reading and writing took less time to read the assignment and wrote more words in the essay portion, but the white noise did not improve the academic accuracy of the assignments. The teens who listened to the babble sounds while doing these tasks reported that the sound made it harder for them to do the assignments. The researchers concluded the white noise improved reading time and writing fluency but didn’t improve overall academic performance.

Comparing Auditory Noise Treatment with Stimulant Medication on Cognitive Task Performance in Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Results from a Pilot Study. This study had 20 children with combined or inattentive ADHD and 20 typically developed children matched for age and gender perform three different cognitive tasks during exposure to white noise and in silence. The children with ADHD were tested with and without stimulant medication. In two of the three tasks, white noise exposure led to significant improvements for both non-medicated and medicated ADHD children. The researchers of the pilot study suggested that exposure to white noise may result in cognitive task improvement equal to or greater than with stimulant medication. 

Putting it all together

Using white noise produced by a sound generator has the possibility of being helpful for some people in certain situations (in real life, we can’t always control the sounds that surround us). The research conducted so far has looked at children and teens and not how it may affect adults who have ADHD.

There are several kinds of white noise generators available, along with downloadable sound and music files. However, having a fan or other machine that produces steady, low sounds can be just as helpful as purchasing a device or a music or sound file. Having a relaxing sound in your environment could be helpful for staying on-task or maintaining attention. However, if after trying white noise while working on a task, you find it to be distracting or stress-creating, don’t continue with it. As with any behavioral management technique, you want to use what works best for you or your child and discontinue anything that is not helpful.

At this time, there is not enough evidence to use white noise as a replacement approach in treatment. For some people it could be a complementary approach when it comes to tackling tasks that require sustained attention, in addition to an already existing treatment and behavioral management plan. 

Looking for more?

Do you use some type of white noise to help you stay on task? What sounds work best for you?

Research on white noise and attention shows white noise could be helpful for some people when it comes to attention and staying on task. We took a look at that research for you.