Listening to brown noise may have cognitive benefits for people with ADHD, but experts warn the evidence is still limited
Darcy Michael, 42, from Vancouver, British Columbia, who has ADHD, uses noise when he needs to focus and calls it a “game changer”.
“I just feel like my brain is being squeezed,” he said.
The evidence that brown noise might help people with attention deficit issues is anecdotal, and there is no definitive research. A few studies have suggested that a similar sound, called white noise, may improve cognitive function and concentration in people with ADHD, and experts believe brown noise may produce the same effect.
Brown noise is considered broadband sound, which means it is made up of a wide range of frequencies that the human ear can hear. Brown noise only uses lower frequencies, creating deeper bass that sounds more pleasant to some. It has been compared to the sound of thunder, a jet plane or a strong wind.
In contrast, white noise, which is also broadband sound, includes all frequencies the human ear can hear – think of static television or a whirring fan. Some people find white noise soothing, while others find the higher tones of white noise irritating.
Another popular broadband sound is pink noise, which falls somewhere between white noise and brown noise. It includes a mix of frequencies, but the low frequencies are more important. Examples of pink noise in nature are the sound of falling rain or the rustling of leaves.
Why Brown Noise Can Help Focus
Some doctors believe that brown noise, white noise, or pink noise is a hearing masking technique, which means they can drown out other distracting sounds.
Göran Söderlund, a researcher at the University of Applied Sciences in Western Norway, believes that the effect goes beyond simple auditory masking. Over the past decade, he has completed 15 preliminary studies on the effects of white noise on people with and without ADHD. He hasn’t studied brown noise, but thinks it would have similar effects.
His research shows that people with ADHD performed better on memory and language tasks when they listened to white noise. The studies were small, but he thinks white and brown noise show promise as tools to help people with ADHD.
The reason may have to do with the persistent overall level of a brain chemical called dopamine. Higher levels of dopamine may help regulate focus, but persistent dopamine release appears to be lower in people with ADHD. Söderlund theorizes that in people with ADHD, listening to broadband noise causes the brain to mimic the effects of dopamine.
For some people with ADHD, neural signals in the brain are like exploding fireworks in all directions, says Söderlund. The result can be a “noisy” head with chaotic thoughts competing for attention. White or brown noise appears to help the brain operate neurons, focus attention, and quiet noisy thoughts.
It’s unclear if these types of sounds could also benefit people who don’t have ADHD. In a small study, Söderlund found that people who don’t have ADHD can still benefit from quieter white noise levels. In another study, children with reading disabilities improved their reading and memory scores by listening to white noise.
“It could benefit more people than we think,” he said.
Söderlund said more research is needed to show whether brown, white or pink noise may help people with other learning disabilities.
“What happens when you’ve been using noise for, say, three months?” ” he said. “Does this actually create new pathways in the brain that facilitate neural communication? My hope would be that actually if you use noise you might be able to reduce the meds.
Dan Berlau, a professor at Regis University, believes the evidence for white noise is strong enough to warrant its use as a complementary tool. He cautioned that there has been little research into whether the effects are different for people on various medications and dosage levels.
“It’s non-invasive. It’s very easy. It is accessible to people of various socio-economic statuses,” he said. “It’s something I would encourage a lot of people to try if they feel they are struggling and could potentially see the benefits.”
Denielle Plummer, 24, of Henryville, Pennsylvania, doesn’t have health insurance and said she couldn’t afford ADHD medication. When she needs to focus, she uses brown noise.
“I’m much more motivated because I know I have something to rely on,” she said. “There’s something I can always put on if I have a tough job or if I have a really tough job to do.”
Taylor Griffin, 27, from Winnipeg, Canada, said brown noise helped her focus during a business class, and now she listens to it while doing chores, driving or cooking.
“If I listen to a brown noise, I can focus for 30 minutes, do something else for 30 minutes, and come back to focus,” she said. “I can choose when I want to focus.”
What’s the best way to find and use brown noise?
You can find playlists containing brown, white or pink noise on YouTube and Spotify. Retail and online stores sell sound machines that play some or all of these broadband sounds. You can also find sound machine phone apps.
Dave Anderson, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, worries that social media is oversimplifying the effectiveness of sound interventions. He encourages people to work with professionals to develop holistic approaches to ADHD management.
“For anyone struggling, for anyone who has just been diagnosed, I really hope people see this advice online as a first step, but not the essence of treatment,” he said.
For people curious about trying brown, white or pink noise, Anderson recommends buying a sound machine instead of using a phone app, as he thinks using the phone itself could lead to additional distractions. .
Other experts recommend using over-ear headphones, which can block out distractions. But to avoid hearing damage, Anderson cautioned against playing these sounds at high volumes.
Sabryna Herring-Antwine, a licensed occupational therapist in Louisiana, takes prescription ADHD medication and started listening to brown noise after hearing about it on social media.
“I hope it’s not just a fading trend,” she said. “Hopefully it’s something that there will be tons of research on.”
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