White Noise May Boost Attention in Children

Medical News: White Noise May Boost Attention in Children - in Pediatrics, ADHD/ADD from MedPage Today

This small study addresses inattentive schoolchildren who performed significantly better when so-called "white noise" was played during class. At the same time the background noise had the opposite effect on normally attentive children, whose classroom performance deteriorated when the "white noise" was played. Understand that this study produced no evidence that background noise had a beneficial effect on hyperactivity. "This finding could have practical applications, offering noninvasive and nonpharmacological help to improve school results in children with attentional problems," Göran B.W. Söderland, PhD, of Stockholm University in Sweden, said in a statement. However, some investigators have reported contradictory findings, showing that certain task-irrelevant noise can improve performance in children with attention deficits. The explanation for the paradoxical effects of background noise remains unclear. One line of thought holds that background stimulation leads to increased arousal, which counteracts boredom. Another model relies on principles of stochastic resonance, or noise-improved signaling, the authors continued. Detection of sensory signals offers one example. A weak signal or tone stimulus that is below the hearing threshold becomes detectable when random noise is added to the signal. The theory of stochastic resonance also holds that the effects vary among individuals. The differences are linked to attention ability and neurotransmission in such a way that inattentive people require more external noise for proper cognitive function, the authors added.

The study notes that ADHD is distinguished by low tonic dopamine levels that result in excessive reactivity to environmental stimuli. The moderate-brain-arousal model suggests that dopamine-poor brain requires higher input noise to function to full potential. External white noise might compensate for behavior dysfunction related to impaired dopamine transmission. Extending research into the association between noise and cognitive performance, the authors examined the effects of white noise on performance in a normal group of children who differed in their attentiveness.

How big was the study? The study involved 51 secondary-school students, whose classroom attention level had been rated by teachers. The students completed a verbal-recall test with and without the presence of auditory background noise. The signal had adequate strength under both conditions so that participants could perceive the content without error. Analysis of the test results showed no independent effects of noise or group, and the two groups of children (attentive and inattentive) performed at the same overall level under both conditions.

The analysis also showed a significant negative correlation between reading skill and a positive effect of noise (P=0.016), a positive correlation between attention and reading ability (P<0.001), and a positive correlation between teacher-rated inattention and hyperactivity (P<0.001). The authors found no correlation between hyperactivity and noise-effect (P=0.323). "Our data show that auditory white noise may exert potentially similar effects on cognition as medication through the phenomenon of stochastic resonance," the authors wrote in their discussion. "White noise is characterized by randomness and so introduces variability in the nervous system. A poorly tuned neural system benefits from additional white noise." The authors noted that one limitation of the study is that only two levels of noise were evaluated. "One prediction from our model is that in [the] attentive group, a subset of participants will benefit from noise when levels are individually adjusted," they noted. Another limitation is that only one test of cognitive ability was given, and it is not known if the effects would generalize to other cognitive measures. So, should your child study in a noisy room? or a quiet room? It's really an individual issue. Some students need one, some the other. And at different points in their study process they may benefit from some background or "white noise" and at other points (when trying to think out something complex) they may need a period of silence. How do you know? Well, try experimenting, and ask someone who does know: your child or teen. I often talk with children, teens and adults about my own experience having difficulty focusing while studying. In a quiet room, like the back of the law school library during law school, I would find myself drifting off and ....falling asleep or unable to remember what I read. I therefore usually studied at the front of the library, which was noisy and busy. This forced me to put more effort into reading. At some point, however, I would need to move to a quiet space. I often tell students to try studying at Starbucks or another coffee shop. Many find they are able to stay more focused there, and others find it a disaster. They figure out what works by experimenting. Most of my clients purchase Sony Noise Reducing Headsets, costing under $50.00. These can be used to block out some sounds, talking, conversations, and allow the individual to hear only the background noise. And when necessary, turning off the music and leaving on the noise reduction function blocks out many sounds. What's really important is to make your child, teen or self aware that there are many different variations on how our brains work, and when and where they work best. Again, Mel Levine's book "The Myth of Laziness" is a great place to start. For adults I'd follow up with "Driven to Distraction." One thing that Freud said that still holds water is "Knowledge is health." The more you know about yourself, the more you are able to control it and deal effectively with problems. Finally, one thing that ALWAYS helps with individuals with ADHD is to externalize your thinking. It's easier to think and understand when the information is external from your brain and right there in front of you. Learning a good process for taking notes and solving problems visually - externally - is a significant first step. By the way, I'm writing this at a local coffee shop and ....yep....I have my Sony Noise Reducing earphones on. Listening to Sigur Ros, an Icelandic "post rock" group. They sing in Icelandic ...so the words are meaningless to me. It helps me focus, I don't get distracted by the content of the music...and at certain points...I like others need to turn the music off and really focus. ............................................................ This blog is not offered as medical advice or as a means of diagnosing or treating ADHD or any other disorder. Don't go on line and take an ADHD "test." The diagnosis is complex, and it involves not just looking for symptoms of ADHD, but also ruling out other disorders that might look just like ADHD. So avoid these on line "tests" which are nothing more than a collection of symptoms. You need to see a licensed or registered professional for that. Medical doctors can diagnose ADHD, but the diagnosis is complex and often they will make a referral to a Registered Psychologist. You can obtain a referral from the British Columbia Psychological Association for a psychologist near you. My web page lists a number of resources you can make use of yourself in dealing with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Please visit it at www.adhdhelp.ca or one of my other sites at either Psychology Today, AAMFT, PSYRIS or my professional site.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) assessment and treatment services are offered for individuals, couples, families, children and adolescents in the Burnaby, Vancouver, Coquitlam, Port Moody, New Westminster and Maple Ridge areas of the lower mainland. This includes neuro-developmental assessments, psycho-education and cognitive behaviour therapy. I also provide diagnostic assessments for autism and Asperger's Disorder in my Burnaby office.

Dr. Jim Roche
Registered Psychologist, British Columbia 01610