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Could ‘green noise’ be your secret weapon to reading – and writing – more?

Zadie Smith swears by it. Reluctant readers say it turned them into bookworms. Amelia Tait investigates the YouTube ambient videos that help some people be at their most productive.

For more than nine years, a YouTube user named Dale has wandered through various wildernesses clutching microphones. For one video in particular – called “Ten Hours of Green Noise Version 2 – Earth’s Average Noise Blend” – the American personally captured the sound of rain, wind, surf, creeks, rivers and thunder to compose a “collage” of noise, with anything created by birds, insects or man painstakingly cut out. The result is a gentle, fuzzy stream of nature sounds that has prompted comments such as, “Thank you. I found some relief... finally” and “It’s a real life saver!”.

Dale’s “noises and sounds” channel, which draws on his 30 year career as a sound engineer, has accumulated a grand total of 18,924,897 views in 15 years. But in a sense, it’s nothing new. Since the late 1960s, people have been sold the sound of the sea or the rainforest to help them concentrate or relax. You’ve also undoubtedly heard of “white noise” – the ambient fuzz created when you combine all of the different frequencies of sound that humans can hear – most commonly associated with TV static. But there is actually a whole rainbow of sound, and for readers and writers in particular, their effects on the brain can be revolutionary.

Speaking with The Penguin Podcast host Nihal Arthanayake in late April, author Zadie Smith revealed how she regularly listens to “brown noise” – short for “Brownian noise” – white noise’s deeper counterpart. While the high frequencies in white noise may be irritating to some, brown noise offers something more akin to a rumble.

“I listen to that day and night,” Smith said, describing how the noise also helped her block out the sounds of the city when she lived in New York. Now, she say, she can write anywhere, “as long as I have the sound in my ears.”

“It sounds so miserable but to be honest when I’m writing, I don’t want a view, and I don’t want to hear anything. I want to ideally just face a wall and it to be quiet,” Smith added. “When I’m writing, the page is all that exists, I can’t really deal with anything else.”

Husband and fellow novelist Nick Laird also praised brown noise, but Arthankaye reacted with scepticism when he discussed his love of purple and green noise too. “Are you making this up?” the host asked.

Laird wasn’t making it up. As well as white, green and brown noise, there’s pink, violet, blue and grey noise (red noise, confusingly, is just brown noise by another name). Pink noise – YouTuber Dale's most popular video, with 5.3m listens alone – is white noise with fewer higher frequencies included, while blue noise is the opposite. Violet noise increases in volume at higher frequencies and it sometimes used to treat tinnitus. Like white noise, grey noise contains every frequency, but each are equally loud.

Nicholas nicknames these sounds 'babysitters': “a constant source of noise gave my subconscious mind something to focus on so my conscious mind could read.'

In practice, the difference between some of these sounds may seem subtle to you: a hissing pipe here, a leaking hose there. But each noise has firm fans who experience a whole spectrum of sensations: one commenter on a violet noise video uploaded by Dale writes, “From the second I put this on, my ears felt like I was wearing ear plugs” while another on blue noise video notes, “It makes me feel like I’m inhaling something cold”.

Nicholas, a 37-year-old veteran from Oklahoma, tells me that pink noise helps him read. I find him on a Reddit forum for readers where, last year, he shared an unusual discovery. Nicholas had been having problems with the hot water in his apartment: the maintenance manager advised running the tap for 15 minutes before showering to allow the water to properly heat up. Nicholas sat in the bathroom, opened his Kindle, and prepared to wait. Before he knew it, his legs had fallen asleep. “I read more in one sitting than I had in a long time,” he recalls now.

Nicholas describes this incident as an “Aha!” moment: this is when he realised that the sound of running water helps him concentrate when reading. From then on, Nicholas would lie in the hallway and devour books with the bathroom tap running – sometimes, he read with an air conditioning unit “roaring” nearby. Nicholas nicknames these sounds “babysitters”: “a constant source of noise gave my subconscious mind something to focus on so my conscious mind could read.”

So which colour noise should you choose? It’s tempting to follow in Smith’s footsteps, click on a YouTube video entitled “10 HOURS BROWN NOISE”, and hope to emerge a better reader or writer as a result. Things might not be that simple. Joanna Scanlon is a PhD student at the University of Oldenburg in Germany who has researched how auditory stimuli affect attention. When asked if one type of noise is superior for helping us concentrate, she says: “It differs person by person and task by task.”

Nicholas, for example, was diagnosed with ADD when he joined the military – he says he’s “constantly” trying to fine-tune his attention span. Scanlon says we all process and react to sounds differently, and it’s best to experiment to see what works best for you. 

Whatever you choose, try to opt for something consistent. “Humans are excellent pattern detectors,” Scanlon explains, “Even if we are ignoring a stimulus, our brain can detect unexpected changes in the pattern of that stimulus.” Scanlon gives the example of a clock that occasionally makes an odd noise. Even if we aren’t actively paying attention to it, it won’t take long before the clock becomes distracting. In short: “deviations in our sound environment” can easily siphon off our attention, and constant noises without unexpected changes can help us block out “more eventful stimuli.”

What about authors other than Smith and Laird? Phoebe Luckhurst, author of forthcoming rom-com The Lock In prefers good old fashioned white noise. “I find that I need calm without background hum,” she explains – when she writes, she puts on noise-cancelling headphones and plays a white noise track. “I live on a main road in southeast London, so otherwise I hear too many gnashing motorbikes and ambulances to be able to concentrate on anything very creative for long.”

For Luckhurst, white noise is a way to stay in the zone. “On a good day, I’ll blink and realise I’ve been writing non-stop for two hours,” she explains. She describes the experience as almost Pavlovian – she now associates white noise with being industrious, which helps stop her fidgeting and opening and reopening the fridge. No other sound will do – once, when she tried to write while listening to a podcast, she absent-mindedly transcribed an entire sentence of the host’s speech.

Interestingly, Luckhurst’s experiences couldn’t be more different when reading: she hates reading to white noise and is even able to read with the TV on in the background. “Clearly, my brain is very inconsistent,” she jokes.

It’s this inconsistency that means trial and error is the best way to find out the noises that you should read and write to, whether it's pink, green, purple or brown. Thankfully, in the internet age, this doesn't mean having to go and stand under a waterfall or plug in an old telly – just clicking a few YouTube links, and tuning in.  

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Image: Ryan McEachern / Penguin

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