If you work in an office that uses white noise to cover up chatter and phone conversations, it could be doing more than just annoying the bejeezus out of you - it could be disrupting your thinking and even aggravating high blood pressure and heart disease.
According to Mark A. W. Andrews, professor of physiology at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, the commonly used white noise has multiple negative side effects:
- Background or low-level noise in the home, work or school often disrupts people’s concentration.
- Ambient noise also affects people’s health by increasing general stress levels and aggravating stress-related conditions such as high blood pressure, coronary disease, peptic ulcers and migraine headaches.
- Stress resulting from ongoing white noise can induce the release of cortisol, a hormone that helps to restore homeostasis in the body after a bad experience. Excess cortisol impairs function in the prefrontal cortex—an emotional learning center that helps to regulate “executive” functions such as planning, reasoning and impulse control. Some recent evidence indicates that the prefrontal cortex also stores short-term memories. Changes to this region, therefore, could potentially disrupt a person’s capacity to think clearly and to retain information.
- Noise-induced stress may also decrease dopamine availability in the prefrontal cortex, where the hormone controls the flow of information from other parts of the body. Stress resulting from background noise, then, may decrease higher brain function, impairing learning and memory.
Andrews' information on the effects of background white noise is published in the January issue of Scientific American magazine.