White Noise Enhances Memory In Those with Attention Problems

When someone says “white noise” to me I immediately picture a television screen full of “snow” — like when the screen goes blank because the signal is lost, and an irritating noise that reminds me of “brain fuzz.” When scientists say that white noise is actually good for memory improvement, and helps some people to improve attention, I tend to be skeptical.

A friend of mine has the television on all night, and even turns a radio on when in the shower. He says everyone in his family gets angry with him, because it interrupts their sleep, and in order to hear the radio in the shower it has to be pretty loud (even worse, it’s always PBS radio, not music!). He complains that he can’t sleep, but refuses to listen to anyone telling him that turning off the noise will allow his brain to rest and he can get a good night’s sleep. He said he’s been doing it since he was a child. Hello, if I did everything I once did as a child I would not be where I am today!

Noise has always been said to be a detriment to memory. When we are studying we are told to turn off all distractions, like the radio and television (now it’s headphones and CDs). Your brain is not able to process learning and the distractions at the same time. How then can white noise benefit and enhance memory?

Amazingly, there are a few different ways in which white noise can benefit our memory and mental processing. It is often used in meditation and relaxation therapies as a stress relief. Stress is a memory blocker. When our brains are consumed with distractions and problems it has a hard time focusing. Without the ability to focus we are unable to learn, so what enters our short-term memory goes right back out again before it has a chance to set in and pass on to long-term memory.

White noise is actually a random signal that contains equal power within a fixed bandwidth frequency at any center. Now that’s the dictionary definition. White noise gets it name from “white light,” which is what you see with your eyes when the color is equally spread out over your three-color receptors (cones). White noise is basically the same, only with sound. The frequencies are so spread out that you only hear one level — the white noise. “If you took all of the imaginable tones that a human can hear and combined them together, you would have white noise.”

Recent studies have found that children with attention problems, like ADD, ADHD or dyslexia can actually benefit from listening to white noise in the background as they are learning. It will not work for children who do not have attention problems, but this discovery is a big leap in research to find ways to calm children with attention problems and get them to pay attention and focus.

By providing white noise in the background to school age children with ADHD, Swedish researchers found the children’s sentence memory recall in the classroom improved significantly. They just don’t understand yet why this happens.

One possible explanation is that children diagnosed with attention disorders are more distracted by regular noise. The white noise covers up the distractive noises, allowing the children to concentrate better. Children with no attention problems found the white noise distracting and their performance decreased. This is probably why I always found the white noise irritating.

In the Swedish experiment, 51 secondary school children were tested on episodic verbal free recall tests under two types of noise conditions. In the high noise condition, verb/noun sentences were given with white noise background. In the low noise condition sentences were given without noise. Results indicated that exposure to background noise improved the performance of the children who normally had attention problems, while worsened the performance of children with normal attention spans. They also found there was difference in episodic memory between either groups when white noise was present, equalizing the brain’s ability to memorize and learn.

Raising the ability of children with attention problems to concentrate and improve their memory, through the use of white noise, is an interesting memory tool that is worth exploring. Other work along these lines comes to similar conclusions, which is exciting news for people who have attention problems.

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Geonome Medicine — The effects of background white noise on memory performance in inattentive school children: http://www.behavioralandbrainfunctions.com/content/6/1/55

How Stuff Works — What is White Noise? http://www.howstuffworks.com/question47.htm

Eide Neurolearning BlogWhite Noise Helps Memory Recall of ADHD/Reading Impaired Children: http://eideneurolearningblog.blogspot.com/2010/11/white-noise-helps-memory-recall-of-adhd.html

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