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Does Noise Influence Our Creative Powers?

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Many of us find it difficult to find the "right" conditions for creativity. Finding enough time, space and energy can be a big ask as we lead busy lives in busy surroundings. Distractions and demands, colleagues and clients, traffic and even the weather - all have the power to influence our ability to create. The question is - do they influence what we create, and if so, how?

Earlier this year I read a number of media reports of a research study that suggested that moderate background noise is a better spur to innovative thinking than the sound of silence. I wanted to test this idea and bring in other elements of noise - visual as well as aural - to see how it affected people as they had ideas.

So, we invited some of Brighton's most creative minds for an evening of disrupted creativity. At an event held at Lighthouse Gallery in Brighton, six groups exercised their creative muscles on a series of hypothetical design briefs - while assaulted from all sides by sounds, songs, images, videos, interruptions and even pitch darkness.

An example brief was to design a device for collecting excess rainwater. One room brainstormed to the sounds of rolling waves and the song La Mer, whilst the other room listened to a thunderstorm and The Doors' Riders on the Storm. Not surprisingly, ideas from room one focused on collecting seawater and ideas from room two centred around collecting rainwater. One of the more radical ideas included a giant floorplan-shaped sponge to be deployed in a flooded home.

Another brief asked participants to come up with a slogan for encouraging people to cut down on electricity use - with room one shown a picture of a sunrise and played Bill Withers' Lovely Day, whilst the room two featured Michael Jackson's Thriller played in pitch darkness. Other distractions included asking groups to ideate in silence - forcing them to write notes to communicate, and asking people to change groups.

The groups then convened to discuss their experiences. What was most interesting was that some people were more distracted by audio influences, and others were more distracted by visual influences. All agreed that it was useful to have some sort of stimulus to spark creative thinking, even if it didn't necessarily have an obvious relationship to the eventual ideas generated. It was as if the noise served as a 'first-layer' to ease the creative process, much like some artists begin a work with a coloured wash to avoid staring at a blank canvas.

We weren't aiming to come up with scientific research material, more to get our participants to take a more conscious approach to the creative process, to be aware of influences and factors that might shape future ideas. Our message was: know why you're thinking what you're thinking - and think better.

We're running a similar version of the event in conjunction with Creative Bath on November 12th, at the Natural Theatre Company, Bath.