What did your school smell like? Was it noisy or peaceful?
It might not seem important, but a growing body of research suggests that smells and sounds can have an impact on learning, performance and creativity. Indeed, some head teachers have recently taken to broadcasting noises and pumping whiffs into their schools to see whether it can boost grades. Is there anything in it? And if so, what are the implications for the way we all work and study?
There is certainly some well-established research to suggest that some noises can have a detrimental effect on learning. Numerous studies over the past 15 years have found that children attending schools under the flight paths of large airports lag behind in their exam results.
But general noise seems to have an effect too. Bridget Shield, a professor of acoustics at London South Bank University, and Julie Dockrell, now at the Institute of Education, have been conducting studies and advising politicians on the effects of all sorts of noises, such as traffic and sirens, as well as noise generated by the children themselves. When they recreated those particular sounds in an experimental setting whilst children completed various cognitive tasks, they found a significant negative effect on exam scores. “Everything points to a detrimental impact of the noise on children’s performance, in numeracy, in literacy, and in spelling,” says Shield. The noise seemed to have an especially detrimental effect on children with special needs. `
Shield says the sound of “babble” – the chatter of other children, is particularly distracting in the classroom. Architects that fashion open-plan classrooms in schools would do well to take this on board. “People are very distracted by speech – particularly if it’s understandable, but you’re not involved in it.” This phenomenon is also known as the irrelevant speech effect, she says, adding that “it’s a very common finding in open-plan offices as well.”
Whether background sounds are beneficial or not seems to depend on what kind of noise it is – and the volume. In a series of studies published last year, Ravi Mehta from the College of Business at Illinois and colleagues tested people’s creativity while exposed to a soundtrack made up of background noises – such as coffee-shop chatter and construction-site drilling – at different volumes. They found that people were more creative when the background noises were played at a medium level than when volume was low. Loud background noise, however, damaged their creativity.
This makes sense for a couple of reasons, says psychologist Dr Nick Perham, at Cardiff Metropolitan University in the UK, who studies the effect of sounds on learning but was not involved in the study. Firstly, he says, sounds that are most distracting tend to be very variable. A general hum in the background suggests a steady-state sound with not much acoustical variation. “So there’s not much there to capture your attention – nothing distracting the subjects,” he says. At the same time, the background noise might cause the subjects to be in a slightly heightened state of arousal, says Perham. You don’t want too much or too little arousal. “Medium arousal is best for good performance. So it might be that a general hum in the background gives an optimum level of arousal.” With that in mind, Perham suggests there may be some benefit to playing music or other sounds in an art class or other situations where creativity is key.
Many teachers all over the world already play music to students in class. Many are inspired by the belief that hearing music can boost IQ in subsequent tasks, the so-called Mozart effect. While the evidence actually suggests it’s a stretch to say classical music boosts brainpower, researchers do think pleasant sounds before a task can sometimes lift your mood and help you perform well, says Perham, who has done his own studies on the phenomenon. The key appears to be that you enjoy what you’re hearing. “If you like the music or you like the sound – even listening to a Stephen King novel – then you did better. It didn’t matter about the music,” he says.