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The science of sound: Why sound is a top priority in workplaces

Thanks for Work in Mind for featuring this article. Click here to visit their website and read the original piece

Next time you’re in an office, take a look around you. Chances are, almost everything you see was designed to look that way. Someone has taken the time to consider the colour of the walls, the door handles, the furniture, the lighting…

Now think about the sounds you typically hear in the space. If you’re lucky, you might hear birds singing outside or a pleasant babble of background activity. But for most people, the sound in their workplaces is a stress-inducing mix of man-made noise like air-conditioning, traffic, and construction, punctuated by other people’s conversations and endless notifications. It’s accidental, undesigned, and unhealthy.

At home, we can usually manage our soundscape to some extent, perhaps by playing music we like or closing doors to block out unwanted noise. But in shared buildings, people don’t have much direct control over the sound they’re subjected to. This can result in workspaces full of people wearing noise-canceling headphones – physically together but very much in their own silos.

Designing Workplaces for the Ears

Of all the senses, sound affects us the quickest. Our ears’ primary role is to keep us safe, providing a 24/7 stream of information about our surroundings – “Am I safe here?”, “What’s going on behind me?”. We react to these sounds before we’ve even had a chance to consciously process what’s happening.

These reactions are really powerful too. Sound changes nearly every aspect of how our brains and bodies function. It affects our emotions, our ability to focus, solve problems, and come up with ideas. It impacts us physically, changing our heart rate, breathing, and hormones, and it alters our behaviour, such as how long we spend in a given space.

Our ears evolved outdoors, but over the course of just a few centuries, the sounds we hear daily have completely changed. The problem is that man-made noise isn’t very good for us. In one study, researchers used an MRI scanner to compare what was happening in people’s brains when they heard natural sounds compared to artificial ones. When people heard artificial sounds, their brains showed an “inward-directed” focus of attention, similar to brain states found in people with anxiety and depression.

Natural sounds produced the opposite effect. People’s brains showed an “outward-directed” focus of attention associated with restoration and relaxation. It’s a feeling you might have experienced during a long peaceful walk in nature – except this was just from listening to a few minutes of natural sound. It’s just one of hundreds of studies showing the benefits of natural sound.

Nowadays, people are deprived of natural sound and often subjected to noise that makes them feel even worse. It’s no surprise, then, that noise is the #1 source of complaints in the workplace. The good news is that there are scientifically validated ways to change this. Bringing carefully designed natural sound into buildings can bring about huge benefits to people’s health, support them in different workplace activities, and even mask distracting noise. It’s a practice known as “soundscaping”.

If you’d like to learn more, Moodsonic’s new design guide, “Soundscaping for Positive Spaces”, delves deeper into the science of sound and the practise of soundscaping. Moodsonic uses technology and science to bring the benefits of natural sounds indoors.

Click here to download Soundscaping for Positive Spaces.

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