The noise in your ears – and eyes. How it affects you.

What are the similarities between auditory and visual noise? How do they actually affect us? We asked Christina Bodin – architect, teacher at the School of Architecture at KTH in Stockholm and researcher in the field of the interaction between humans and their environment. Bodin is an expert on how our physical environments affect or behavior, psychology and well-being. She focuses on the effect the office environment has on staff and organizations.

Noice affects our visual experience

– Both auditory and visual noise cause distraction. Noise reaches us through our ears and affects us even if we are not consciously aware of it – for instance in the presence of low and continuous background noise. Visual distraction can occur, for example, as someone walks past your desk. The sense of sight is also our most dominant sense and usually hijacks our other environmental experiences. In other words, it does not “fly under the radar”. Nearly half of the brain’s cerebral cortex is used for processing visual signals, and interestingly enough research shows that the exposure to noise also affects our visual experience. We also know that how we experience a physical space can be affected by simultaneously working with both the sense of hearing and the sense of sight.

The annoying sound of a colleague speaking on the phone

What are the most common examples of ambient sound and visual noise? – In the urban environment, it is the noise of traffic. But inside, in an office, it is the conversations between colleagues and the phone calls that you really do not want to listen to but just cannot avoid. Visual distractions can be described as a visual overload in an external or internal environment. Visual distraction in an office might for example be caused by digital display screens – an environment that invades your personal space and makes it difficult to concentrate.

“Various cognitive studies have shown noise to have a negative impact on our productivity, the accuracy of our work and our ability to retain information.”

A car alarm is negative. Birdsong is soothing.

So when does sound become noise? Is all noise bad, or do we need noise to be stimulated?

– Sound can affect us in both positive and negative ways. Noise is always negative. Sound, or visual stimulation, becomes noise once it is unwanted or disturbing and you are unable to shut it out. Whether you find a certain sound negative or not is an individual matter, although some sounds are generally perceived by nearly everyone as negative – such as the sound of a car alarm. A positive sound is experienced as pleasantly stimulating, relaxing or rehabilitative. Examples are the sounds of the ocean or birdsong.

We strive for personal control

What can be the benefits of a noise free environment? How does it make us feel? – In a quiet environment, we are able to hear our inner voice, focus and think clearly. If you need to concentrate – to finish a complicated task, for example – a quiet environment will help you feel focused and create a sense of flow. We may also experience feelings of well-being and pleasure thanks to a sense of personal control. We all strive to have personal control, regardless of whether it concerns relationships, personal finances or our life and work situation.

Being able to shut out unwanted stimuli – noise, for example – is a way to achieve personal control over your physical environment, whether at the office or at home. The inability to shut out noise leads to stress and overloads our mental system, which again can lead to physiological symptoms. Various cognitive studies have shown that noise has a negative impact on our productivity, the accuracy of our work and our ability to retain information. But we also know that the sound of people chatting or laughing can contribute to a sense of togetherness in the workplace.

Creative sounds

Depending on the task, creativity can be stimulated by sound. For example, creative writing is not stimulated by having colleagues talking next to your desk, but the buzz of people talking in a cafe might cause your creative juices to flow. This is because listening to irrelevant talk—conversations between strangers—doesn’t disturb us as much as listening to conversations that might concern us do. Ultimately, what stimulates or does not stimulate our creativity is highly individual, depending on personality and the task at hand.

Reduce noise. Increase freedom.

How can we live more quietly? What are your best tips for reducing noise and visual clutter? – To reduce distractions in our work environments, we must consciously use materials that can absorb noise – while at the same time including stimulating sounds in certain aspects. When it comes to “visual clutter” things get more complicated. We don’t want to work in an overly minimalistic environment with no visual stimulation whatsoever. Research shows that many office workers find their white offices to be boring and impersonal, seeing them as a compromise by management to avoid conflict over the design of the physical space.

I believe that one of the reasons many people don’t want to go back to their offices after covid is that they don’t find the work environment as stimulating as their homes – where they may be able to customize their workspace, perhaps with a nice view or the option of opening a window to let in some fresh air. We need to allow people to take personal control over their physical work environment and encourage them to engage and interact with it. What is stimulating to one person might confuse another, so rules must be in place to maintain balance. Rather than forcing a generic, impersonal workspace, the freedom to choose is what is most important.

At Zilenzio, we put a lot of time and care into developing sound dampening solutions that also have a visually attractive design. Feel free to check out the different collections here: