I was completely unable to coherently string thoughts together at the recent IBM Connect conference. At first I thought that I was just out of practice, since I have intentionally decreased my conference-going in the past year or so. But thinking back on it, I realized that I am never very productive at conferences. My thesis is that there several factors, like bad wi-fi and terrible coffee. But for me, at least, the dominant factor is the noise. Conferences are really, really loud.
There is a great deal of evidence that high levels of noise dampen our creativity and productivity. Almost paradoxically, moderate levels of background noise — like that at a cafe or restaurant — can actually increase creative thinking:
Ravi Mehta, Ryu Zhu, and Amar Cheema, Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition, cited by phys.org
A moderate level of noise enhances creativity compared to both low and high levels of noise. Moderate background noise induces distraction which encourages individuals to think at a higher, abstract level, and consequently exhibit higher creativity.[…]
For individuals looking for creative solutions to daily problems, instead 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 (such as a café) may trigger the brain to think abstractly, and thus generate creative ideas.
Companies are taking advantage of this in workplace design by making lounge areas, with tables, chairs, and sofas, so that people can move from overly quiet offices and work spaces and get the creative benefit of more noise. I find myself leaving the quiet home office and heading over to the local coffee shop a few times a week, to get the juices flowing.
But the next time I go to a conference, I think I will put on noise-cancelling headphones.