Imagine a deep, static rumble, like the low roar of a jet engine. The sound is called brown noise and has become popular among people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder as a tool to help them focus or relax.
Darcy Michael, 42, of Vancouver, B.C., who has ADHD, uses the noise when he needs to focus and calls it a “game changer.”
“I just feel like my brain is being hugged,” he said.
The evidence that brown noise might help people with attention-deficit issues is anecdotal, and there’s no definitive research. A few studies have suggested that a similar sound, called white noise, may improve cognitive function and concentration in people with ADHD, and experts believe brown noise may produce the same effect.
Brown noise is considered a broadband sound, which means it is composed of a wide range of frequencies that the human ear can hear. Brown noise primarily uses lower frequencies, creating a lower-pitched bass that sounds more pleasant to some. It’s been compared to the sound of thunder, a jet plane or strong wind.
By contrast, white noise, which is also a broadband sound, includes all the frequencies that the human ear can hear — think of television static or a whirring fan. Some people find white noise soothing, while others find the higher-pitched tones in white noise to be irritating.
Another popular broadband sound is pink noise, which falls somewhere in 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.
Some physicians believe that brown noise, white noise or pink noise is an auditory masking technique — meaning they can drown out other distracting noises.
Göran Söderlund, a researcher at the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, believes the effect goes beyond simple auditory masking. Over the past decade, he has done 15 preliminary studies on the effects of white noise on people with and without ADHD. He hasn’t studied brown noise but believes it would have similar effects.
His research shows that people with ADHD performed better on memory and language tasks when they listened to white noise. The studies were small, but he believes white and brown noise hold promise as tools to help people with ADHD.
The reason may be related to the persistent, overall level of a brain chemical called dopamine. Higher levels of dopamine may help regulate focus, but persistent dopamine release appears to be lower in people 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, neuron signals in the brain are like fireworks exploding in all directions, Söderlund said. The result can be a “noisy” head with chaotic thoughts competing for attention. White or brown noise appears to help the brain harness the neurons, focus attention and quiet noisy thoughts.
It’s unclear whether these types of sounds could also benefit people who don’t have ADHD. In a small study, University of Southern California researchers found that people who don’t have ADHD may still benefit from quieter levels of white noise. In another study, Söderlund and his colleagues found that children with reading disabilities improved reading and memory scores by listening to white noise.
“This could be beneficial for more people than we think,” Söderlund said.
Söderlund said more research is needed to show whether brown, white or pink noise could help people with other learning disabilities.
“What happens when you’ve been using noise, say, for three months?” he said. “Does it actually build up new pathways in the brain that make neural communication easier? My hope would be that actually if you use noise, maybe you could lower medication.”
Dan Berlau, a professor at Regis University, believes that the evidence for white noise is strong enough to justify using it as a complementary tool. He cautioned that there has been little research on whether the effects are different for people on various medications and dosage levels.
“It’s noninvasive. It’s very easy. It’s accessible for people of a variety of socioeconomic statuses,” he said. “It’s something that I would encourage many people to try if they feel like they are struggling and could potentially see a benefit.”
Denielle Plummer, 24, of Henryville, Pa., doesn’t have health insurance and said she can’t afford ADHD medication. When she needs to focus, she uses brown noise.
“I’m a lot more motivated because I know that I have something I can rely on,” she said. “There’s something I can always put on if I have a tough assignment, or if I have a really tough work task I have to complete.”
Taylor Griffin, 27, of Winnipeg, Canada, said brown noise helped her focus during a business course, and now she listens to it when she is doing chores, driving or cooking.
“If I listen to brown noise, I can focus for 30 minutes, do something else for 30 minutes and go back to focusing,” she said. “I can choose when I want to focus.”
You can find playlists featuring brown, white, or pink noise on YouTube and Spotify. Retail and online stores sell sound machines that play some or all of these broadband sounds. You can also find sound machine phone apps.
Dave Anderson, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, worries that social media can oversimplify the effectiveness of a sound interventions. He encourages people to work with professionals to develop holistic approaches to managing ADHD.
“For anybody who’s struggling, for anybody who’s just gotten the diagnosis, I really hope that people see these pointers 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 distractions. But to prevent hearing damage, Anderson cautioned against playing these sounds at loud volumes.
Sabryna Herring-Antwine, a licensed professional therapist in Louisiana, takes a prescription ADHD drug and started listening to brown noise after learning about it on social media.
“I hope this is something that is not just a fading trend,” she said. “I hope that it is something that there will be tons of research on.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that brown noise only uses lower frequencies. Brown noise primarily uses lower frequencies. The story also incorrectly identified the authors of a study about the benefits of white noise for people who don't have ADHD. The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California. This version has been corrected.
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