In today’s busy culture, I’d be surprised to find anyone who wasn’t keen to discover a new way to boost their focus, sleep and relaxation. Particularly if this could be accomplished by merely tuning into a certain kind of sound.
TikTok is bombarded with various trends promoting new techniques aimed at improving our health and mental well-being. While some simply may be fads, a particular craze has gained a lot of attention over the last year: #brownnoise is currently sitting at 118.5M views on the popular social media platform.
Being a Neuroscience student at King’s College London, I was intrigued as to whether there was any scientific evidence to support the anecdotal relaxing and focus-boosting effects of brown noise, and how exactly it may be working.
What is brown noise, and what is it reported to achieve?
Unlike its better-known counterpart 'white noise', which is ‘staticky’ and contains both high and low frequencies, brown noise is predominantly made up of low-frequency sounds which are produced through Brownian motion – the random movement of particles in liquid.
While the low frequencies are more prominent, brown noise contains every frequency of sound the ear is able to detect at once. It is a compilation of constant deep and minimal sounds with no change in frequency or tone. It is difficult to explain exactly what brown noise sounds like, and in fact, different playlists sound slightly different, but I would compare it to anything which resembles the hum of a fan, heavy rain, strong winds or thunder.
Have a listen here
Brown noise has gained popularity online due to its apparent ability to create an immersive experience to boost focus, tune out racing thoughts, enhance relaxation, reduce anxiety and promote sleep. People online claim it allows them to focus better at busy workplaces, or when concentrating on one task is difficult with a mind full of racing thoughts.
The praise for brown noise is embodied throughout TikTok, with people commenting on videos of the sound with statements like “It’s like a weighted blanket for your brain”.
However, brown noise has received most of its praise within the ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) community. ADHD is a disorder in which individuals may experience symptoms of inattention, causing them to find difficulty in focusing and executing tasks. Online, sufferers of ADHD comment on videos of brown noise with claims like: “My brain is melting into quiet”; “It’s like putting the volume down in my brain”; “I closed my eyes and literally thought of NOTHING”; and “my brain is quiet for the first time ever”. A close friend of mine with ADHD told me she is “unable to get anything done without it”.
I myself am at a stage in my master’s degree where I find my mind is full of thoughts. With looming deadlines, exam season, financial stress and the frightening question of ‘what is next?’, I decided to try brown noise out for myself.
In the week before my exam, I tried out doing some revision at home with a brown noise playlist from Spotify. In reference to my concentration, I personally did not notice a difference. However, I definitely noticed a calming effect of the noise. So much so that I often now turn to listening to brown noise when my anxiety is preventing me from sleeping.
It is important to note that brown noise is not for everyone. Some people listening to it claim the noise is actually distracting or even anxiety provoking. Some people with ADHD may find it unsettling to silence the inner monologue which they have learnt to live with, and some simply claim that the sound is more annoying than calming. Considering that many people begin listening to brown noise with preconceptions of the outcome, it may also be that there is an element of placebo effect to its benefits.
Lack of scientific evidence…
Unfortunately, there have not been any scientific studies into the benefits of brown noise as of yet. However, there are other similar sounds named after colours, and research over the last few decades into how these may be working may shed some light. These sounds include, for example, pink noise and white noise, which are very similar to brown noise but separated by the volume of the varying frequencies they contain. For example, pink noise is soft at high frequencies, but loud at low frequencies, while white noise is spread across the spectrum.
There is even some thought that different ‘colours’ of sound may each be better at providing specific benefits. For example, a study in 2012 exploring the benefits of pink noise has suggested it may function to promote sleep through the slowing of brain waves.
Currently, white noise has been the focus of the most compelling clinical studies. Professor Daniel Berlau from Regis University in Colorado wrote a review published in 2019 on the possibility of white noise as a therapeutic avenue for people with ADHD. In this article, it is suggested that white noise, or any kind of noise therapy, may be producing its benefits through a mechanism known as ‘stochastic resonance’. Within this, it is believed that white noise promotes the brain's ability to concentrate on signals which would otherwise be too weak to be detected. In other words, under the stochastic resonance theory, listening to white noise can promote clearer focus.
Following the article and since the rise in brown noise’s popularity, Professor Berlau has received many questions on whether his research into white noise can help explain brown noise. In an article for the Guardian, he claims that brown noise is potentially capable of “sound masking” and creating a “blanket” over all other sounds to help calm “brain noise”. He suggests that while any definitive research into how brown noise is working to promote concentration and relaxation has not yet been completed, it does “make sense” that the calming sound can help to tune out an internal monologue, even if it is simply working by blocking out other more distracting sounds.
The scientific evidence for the benefits of brown noise is lacking. However, it seems to be helping a lot of people, which can only be a good thing, regardless of how exactly it may be working. Further, it is not dangerous (unless listening at unsafe volumes) and is an easy, non-invasive technique which is universally accessible to anyone with a phone, speaker or computer.
Both YouTube and Spotify are bombarded with long videos and playlists dedicated to brown noise. So, if you struggle to concentrate, relax or focus, try it out yourself and see what you think.