Silence is golden

118-1804_IMGThe digital age has led to us being overwhelmed with sources of information and entertainment.  It is unfashionable to suggest that it might be unproductive to take advantage of multiple data streams to interact with the virtual world, listen to your favourite music and study simultaneously.

However in 1973, Kahneman proposed that the amount of attention that an individual can deploy at any time is limited.  It is known as the ‘capacity model of attention’ and is based on the assumptions that attention can be freely allocated to activities based on their arousal level and that your total attention is finite.  The model has been used to explain research findings on the effect of background television on cognitive performance.  While recent research has demonstrated that students read and study better in silence; though if they must listen to music then certain types are better than others, for instance light classical music has a less deleterious effect than hip hop music – maybe because it has a lower arousal level.

So multi-tasking is not conducive to high quality output or efficient working.  Many people have arrived at this conclusion by the time they graduate from University or have spent a few years in a mentally demanding job.  However, it is an uphill task to convince young people that they would perform better and finish tasks faster without the distractions made readily available by the digital age.

Or that is safer not to cross the road while listening to music and texting your friends!


For many references to the research literature see Chou, P. M-T., Attention drainage effect: how background music effects concentration in Taiwanese college students, Journal of Scholarship of Teaching & Learning, 10(1):36-46, 2010.

Kahneman, D., Attention and effect, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973.

7 thoughts on “Silence is golden

  1. drehack

    I fully agree. But how comes that some youngsters declare that their mind comes to rest only if something in the background is going on?

    1. Ariful Hussain

      Because to some it is frightening to have total silence. It signals that the person is utterly alone, which is something most do not find enjoyable.

      I think here we need to make a harder distinction between those extra activities that drain attention away and those that are just casually playing in the background. In the real world it is impractical to achieve total silence [noise in the background → automobiles, planes, trains, birds, mice, people chattering away in the street]. So there is always some amount of background noise anyway.

      Perhaps the optimal level of background noise differs between people, too.

      I know I find it far too weird and eerie to concentrate when there is absolutely NO sound. Even effortful concentration. But there is obviously an upper limit to this. Far worse are physical distractions [e.g. your spouse/friend/children pulling you away from your activity/study, a voluptous bikini-clad female walking by….] in my opinion.

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