Coffee Shops and Creativity

A lot of writers I know like to take their work to coffee shops. I’ve been known to do this myself, Strange Brew logoespecially when I’m feeling stuck. It seems to help.

I’ve always attributed this to the change of scene or perhaps the presence of other people focused on their own work — not to mention the caffeine component — but it turns out that science has come up with an explanation for why it works: It’s the noise.

In a study called “Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition,” Ravi Mehta, Rui (Juliet) Zhu, and Amar Cheema posit that the right kind of ambient noise is good for sparking creative responses, because it distracts people just enough to keep them from getting stuck.

According to a NY Times piece on the research, “extreme quiet tends to sharpen your focus, which can prevent you from thinking in the abstract,” while “moderate levels [of noise] can distract people just enough so that they think more broadly.

That moderate level can be found in a coffee shop, with the whoosh of the espresso machine and the conversations. It can also be achieved by turning on a television. Something about 70 decibels is best.

However, you don’t want too much noise. Apparently 85 decibels — about the amount generated by a blender — is too much.

This likely explains why I can work with the radio on and don’t mind the sound of the trains going by a few blocks from here, but am completely distracted by a lawnmower next door (we won’t get into chain saws and leaf blowers).

Of course, this modern world will not always generate the kind of sound you need by chance. So some bright young things have created an ambient noise website for those who can’t get out to a coffee shop: Coffitivity. Click on that link and you will hear coffee shop noise.

I may try it out. One of the troubles with using the radio or TV for this is that the program may get interesting and draw you into it. Or — this happens to me a lot — it may get really annoying and you’ll have to get up and shut it off. On the Coffitivity site, there is the undeniable sound of conversation, but you can’t quite make out what people are saying, so you won’t get interested. Or annoyed.

The scientists seem to have structured their research to isolate the noise factor, as opposed to other things. While they did one experiment in a real life setting similar to a coffee shop — a student lounge area outfitted with kitchen appliances — they did others just trying different kinds of noise.

But I still think part of the attraction of the coffee shop is the sight of other people doing work or having conversations. After all, coffee shops have a long history of being a place for the sharing of ideas. There’s just something about the atmosphere of a good coffee shop that’s good for thinking.

Maybe I’ll go out to one right now.

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Coffee Shops and Creativity — 8 Comments

  1. I find that the old peer pressure trick works great. Being around other writers as they work shames the Muse into getting into gear. When I worked at the old National Press Building it was great — an entire hive of people writing hard.

  2. I have said for years that working at a coffee shop (or Barnes and Noble, or the library) works for me because there is human noise, but it’s not my noise, no one begging for my attention, but a sense of non-isolation. (The trouble with isolation is that, while it might increase my focus, it also makes me feel sorry for myself, all isolated and stuff. O woes!)

  3. I’m a music person. Coffee shops are TOO interesting. I want to watch what people are doing, see what they order, listen in to their conversations…

    So I dig out the CDs and find instrumentals (if there are lyrics I’ll listen) New age is great for me. Others like classical or rock. Radio is annoying. Give me my stereo!

      • I rarely listen to music when I’m writing (other than the background Muzak at the coffee shop, which is just more white noise) because listening to music becomes intentional. Very occasionally if I’m writing a particular kind of scene I’ll find an instrumental piece that works for it. But mostly, even music without words is too seductive.

  4. I listen to classical — especially Yo Yo Ma playing the Bach Cello Suites — when I’m trying to concentrate, especially if there is unpleasant noise nearby. But I used to regularly listen to John Aielli’s show on KUTX in the mornings, even though a lot of the music had words. There would be points where I’d shut it off to focus, but I really like the mix of music he puts together — everything from opera to hip hop.

    I’ve written in the past to CDs by favorite musicians when the tone of what I was writing was related to the music. The thing I like about both CDs and radio is that someone else is determining the order of the music. That introduces me to something new. Of course, it depends on how good the musician or the DJ is at putting together the compilation. Some DJs drive me crazy.