Biophilia: Nature Sounds vs. White Noise for Productivity and Wellness

Smart-home technologists and commercial integrators should wake up to the sounds of spring water — not white noise — for quelling distractions and improving productivity and well-being.

Biophilia: Nature Sounds vs. White Noise for Productivity and Wellness

The sound of spring water, as employed in Poly's Habitat Soundscaping system, is better than white noise, pink noise and no noise at all when it comes to workplace performance and comfort. #Biophilia

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with piping white noise through an open office space to muffle nearby conversations and protect a modicum of privacy. But white noise is a little old-school, now that research on biophilia and biophilic design indicates our hard-coded attraction to the outdoors … including the sounds of nature.

Why not circulate the sounds of birds and streams instead? The science* is rich, plentiful and convincing: Exposure to nature sounds (among other natural stimuli) can enhance focus, reduce stress, and improve overall wellness when compared to artificial sounds or no sound at all.

They can, of course, also stifle distracting din so prevalent in today’s “collaborative” office environments – just like white and pink noise can do, but without the irritation and fatigue often associated with these artificial sounds.

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A 2011 study comparing the effects of five different speech-masking sounds (including filtered pink noise) found that the sound of spring water was the most optimal for workplace performance, creative thinking and acoustic comfort.

The response mirrors that of the effects of natural light vs. artificial light when it comes to productivity and comfort.

Nature is hard-coded in our DNA after a few hundred-thousand years of outdoor living.

“We can’t resist our innate biological preference for nature,” a narrator explains in a video for Habitat Soundscaping by Poly (formerly Plantronics). “It’s why we have a profoundly positive response to natural light and intrinsically enjoy the sounds of nature.”

Our “primordial sense of hearing is extremely well adapted to survival in the outdoors,” the narrator continues.

Cave-dwellers had to be ever-vigilant for lions, tigers and other predators of yore … but not so much for today’s office dwellers, which simply have to fight or flee pesky suppliers and colleagues.

More than half (53%) of non-executive employees say ambient noise reduces their satisfaction and productivity.

It would be nice if our brains could just shut out the ambient noise, but “our omnidirectional hearing is always on and especially sensitive to human speech,” the Soundscaping narrator says. Back in the day, humans had to listen for every little psst uttered by their vigilant cohorts in the dangerous bush. You can’t undo that biological necessity in the few hundreds of years we’ve been living indoors full-time.

*White Noise vs. Nature Noise: Resources

Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds (2017)

Tuning the cognitive environment: Sound masking with “natural” sounds in open-plan offices (2015)

Effects of Five Speech Masking Sounds on Performance and Acoustic Satisfaction. Implications for Open-Plan Offices (2011)

About the Author

Julie Jacobson
Julie Jacobson:

Julie Jacobson is founding editor of CE Pro, the leading media brand for the home-technology channel. She has covered the smart-home industry since 1994, long before there was much of an Internet, let alone an Internet of things. Currently she studies, speaks, writes and rabble-rouses in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V, wellness-related technology, biophilic design, and the business of home technology. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, and earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a recipient of the annual CTA TechHome Leadership Award, and a CEDIA Fellows honoree. A washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player, Julie currently resides in San Antonio, Texas and sometimes St. Paul, Minn. Follow on Twitter: @juliejacobson