Five experiments conducted by Ravi Mehta, Rui (Juliet) Zhu and Amar Cheema and described in the Journal of Consumer Research show that a moderate level of noise “is likely to induce processing disfluency or processing difficulty, which activates abstract cognition and consequently enhances creative performance.” Put simpler and in our context : as we are distracted from completely logical thought because of the noise we experience in a café, we make way for something else to happen. That something else is more creative.
The article also tells us that all sorts of noise are actually disruptive to logical thought – for example white noise (artificially created and containing all the range of sounds that the human hearing system can process) and pink noise that sounds like the general hiss of an untuned television. High levels of noise also disrupt. The latter is not to be confused with loud noise; loudness is a subjective perception. However, as the café user / creative practitioner is distracted by a moderate level of noise, including some white noise, room for abstract thought is created.
The participants’ creativity was measured by how many unique ideas they generated (experiments 1, 2 and 3) when exposed to moderate levels of noise. In experiment 4 they were asked to come up with as many solutions as they could to a particular problem. In the final experiment, participants’ responses were monitored as they sat in a common room at various times of the day.
The study shows that a moderate level of background noise enhances creativity and a high level disrupts it. Possibly, lower noise level allows more logical thinking to carry on so does not allow for the more creative, more abstract thought. The article also mentions a café as being a natural place for this moderate level of noise.
Tis article offers us some explanation as to why a café is a suitable place for a creative practitioner to work and gives us permission to indulge. I certainly know many writers who like to sit in a café – they claim it makes them feel less lonely than working in isolation at home. The article, however, seems to point to an additional reason, one of which the practitioners are not aware: that they actually think more creatively there. I often plan in a café and I’m often overtaken by those eureka-inducing ideas that seem to come from nowhere as I sip my cappuccino and tuck into my passion cake. Is the cake and caffeine also important? Many of my writer friends think so. Is that a whole other piece of research?One thing is certain: café noise does not disrupt the creative train of thought. A whispered conversation in a library or an open-plan office can as you can understand the words and you can’t help but listen in. The pneumatic drill outside or the clatter of plates falling and breaking is just uncomfortable. All of this is a matter of common sense. It is the change of the way of thinking in the moderate noise zone that intrigues in this article – and this may just explain why creative practitioners like cafes so much.