New research finds undergraduate students with high cognitive flexibility had more ideas in the presence of ambient noise.
The small-scale study by the University of Portsmouth and University College London found students with high cognitive flexibility were least affected by background sound.
Creativity has become a favourable skill to develop in higher education due to its value in society. Ambient noise during a creative performance has traditionally been regarded as distracting and sometimes stressful, but these findings suggest a positive impact for some students.
Ambient noise is a naturally occurring background sound that can be heard in everyday life, for example - furniture being moved, roadside traffic, and overheard conversations. Ambient noise experienced by undergraduates while studying, might include sound from coffee shops, classrooms and the home.
This study investigated the impact of ambient noise on creative performance in undergraduates during the COVID-19 pandemic, when common learning spaces were restricted and people were instructed to work from home. It also explored how mental flexibility - the ability to switch between different tasks and explore strategies for problems – related to the impact of noise.
The undergraduates completed the creative task in silence, and in ambient noise. On average, participants gave more ideas in the presence of ambient noise than in silence. The results also showed the impact of noise interacted with cognitive flexibility: those students who gave more ideas in noise were the ones who had better cognitive flexibility. The noise did not impact the originality of ideas.
These findings could help to inform educational institutes and students on the influence the physical environment might have on creative thinking.
To our knowledge, this is the first study to investigate the impact of ambient noise on idea generation along with a behavioural measure of cognitive flexibility
Dr Jessica Massonnié, Lecturer in Psychology and Early Childhood Studies at the University of Portsmouth said: “To our knowledge, this is the first study to investigate the impact of ambient noise on idea generation along with a behavioural measure of cognitive flexibility.
“The findings shed light on the benefits of ambient noise for those with higher levels of cognitive flexibility. This provides implications for setting up environments where creativity and noise take places, such as universities, coffee shops, libraries and community settings. These locations might benefit from establishing ambient noise and quiet areas to suit a variety of individuals. Overall, noise is not always bad. Depending on the individual, a moderate level of ambient noise may help to generate more ideas.”
Cognitive flexibility involves mentally switching between different tasks or concepts, adapting behaviours to change, and exploring different strategies for problems. Cognitive flexibility and creativity likely share similar cognitive processes because they are both involved with adjusting to new demands, changing perspectives, problem-solving and producing novel and useful ideas.
Dr Massonnié explained: “Our findings suggest students with high cognitive flexibility might benefit more from switching between their task and noise, whereas participants with low cognitive flexibility might be too overwhelmed by noise to benefit from distraction.”
Her collaborator, Precious Mones, Assistant SENCo and at the time of the study Postgraduate student in the Psychology of Education degree from University College London, added: “Our findings are relevant in a world where noise is unavoidable, and educators wish to promote the creative potentials of learners in the 21st century.”