Brown noise could help people with ADHD focus

Brown noise could help people with ADHD focus

Brown noise could help people with ADHD focus

Listening to brown noise may have cognitive benefits for people with ADHD, but experts warn the evidence is still limited

(Illustrations by Chelsea Conrad/The Washington Post)


Imagine a deep, static rumble, like the low rumble of a jet engine. The sound is called brown noise and has become popular with people with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder as a tool to help them focus or relax.

The hashtag #brownnoise has over 86 million views on TikTok. The best videos show people with ADHD recording their reactions to brown noise, and many say their brains have never felt quieter.

Darcy Michael, 42, of Vancouver, BC, who has ADHD, uses noise when he needs to focus and calls it a “game changer”.

“I feel like my brain is being hugged,” he said.

Evidence that brown noise can help people with attention deficit disorders is anecdotal and there is no definitive research. Several studies suggest that a similar sound, called white noise, can improve cognitive function and concentration in people with ADHD, and experts believe that brown noise can produce the same effect.

Brown noise is considered broadband sound, meaning it consists of a wide range of frequencies that the human ear can hear. Brown noise only uses lower frequencies, creating a lower bass that some people find more comfortable. It is compared to the sound of thunder, a jet plane or a strong wind.

In contrast, white noise, which is also broadband sound, includes all the frequencies that the human ear can hear – think of TV static or a whirring fan. Some people find white noise soothing, while others find higher tones in white noise irritating.

Another popular broadband noise is pink noise, which is somewhere between white and brown noise. It includes a mix of frequencies, but the lower frequencies are more prominent. Examples of pink noise in nature are the sound of rain falling or rustling leaves.

Why brown noise can help concentration

Some physicians believe that brown noise, white noise, or pink noise are auditory masking techniques—meaning they can drown out other distracting sounds.

Göran Söderlund, a researcher at the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, believes the effect goes beyond simply masking hearing. Over the past decade, he has conducted 15 preliminary studies on the effects of white noise on people with and without ADHD. He hasn’t studied brown noise, but he believes it would have similar effects.

His research shows that people with ADHD performed better memory and language tasks when they listened to white noise. The studies have been small, but he believes that white and brown noise show promise as tools to help people with ADHD.

The reason may be related to a steady, overall level of a chemical in the brain called dopamine. Higher dopamine levels can help regulate focus, but persistent dopamine release appears be lower in individuals with ADHD. Söderlund theorizes that in people with ADHD, listening to broadband noise somehow 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, said Söderlund. The result can be a “noisy” head with chaotic thoughts vying for attention. White or brown noise appears to help the brain harness neurons, focus attention, and quiet noisy thoughts.

It is unclear whether these types of sounds can benefit people who do not have ADHD. In a small study, Söderlund found that people who don’t have ADHD can still benefit from quieter levels of white noise. U another studydyslexic children improved their reading and memory scores by listening to white noise.

“This could benefit more people than we think,” he said.

Söderlund said more research is needed to show whether it is brown, white or pink noise can help people with other learning disabilities.

“What happens when you use noise for, say, three months?” he said. “Does it actually create new pathways in the brain that facilitate neural communication? I’m hoping that if you use the noise, maybe you can lower the dose of the medication.”

Dan Berlau, a professor at Regis University, thinks so evidence for white noise is strong enough to justify its use as a complementary tool. He cautioned that there has been little research on whether the effects are different for people at different drugs and dose levels.

“It’s non-invasive. It’s very easy. It is accessible to people of different socioeconomic statuses,” he said. “It’s something I would encourage a lot of people to try if they feel like they’re struggling and could see a benefit.

Denielle Plummer, 24, of Henryville, Pa., doesn’t have health insurance and said she can’t afford ADHD medication. When it needs to focus, it uses brown noise.

“I’m much more motivated because I know I have something to fall back on,” she said. “I can always throw something on if I have a tough assignment or if I have a really tough work assignment to complete.”

Taylor Griffin, 27, from Winnipeg, Canada, said brown noise helped her focus during a business course, and now she listens to it when she’s doing housework, driving or cooking.

“If I’m listening to brown noise, I can focus for 30 minutes, do something else for 30 minutes and go back to focus,” she said. “I can choose when I want to focus.”

What is the best way to find and use brown noise?

Playlists with brown, white or pink forest can be found on YouTube and Spotify. Retail and online stores sell sound machines that reproduce some or all of these broadband sounds. You can also find phone apps with sound.

Dave Anderson, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, worries that social media can oversimplify the effectiveness of healthy interventions. He encourages people to work with professionals to develop a holistic approach to treating ADHD.

“For anyone who is struggling, for anyone who has just been diagnosed, I really hope that people see these instructions 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 because he thinks using the phone itself could lead to additional distractions.

Other experts recommend using over-the-ear headphones, which can block out interference. But to prevent hearing damage, Anderson cautioned against playing those sounds at high volumes.

Sabryna Herring-Antwine, a licensed occupational therapist in Louisiana, takes a prescription ADHD medication and started listening to brown noise after learning about it on social media.

“I hope this is something that’s not just a fading trend,” she said. “I hope it’s something that there will be a lot of research on.”

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