Certain types of noise do the opposite of overstimulation, supercharging your HSP gifts. Here’s how to try it yourself.
As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I’m used to feeling out of sync with the rest of the world, gravitating toward quiet when others lean toward ear-splitting uproars — at least it feels that way to me.
Like most individuals with high sensitivity, also called sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), my limited tolerance for clamorous environments has always been a part of my temperament, the result of a combination of genes. But it wasn’t until recently, in my retirement-age reinvention as a stay-at-home writer, that I realized selective noise can actually improve my productivity.
HSPs Often Relish Silence… But Can It Be Too Quiet?
HSPs’ need for serenity is well documented. Research has found that our brains work harder than non-HSP brains when stimulated, so it makes sense that decreasing stimulation gives our gray matter a much-needed rest. Quiet has long been touted as critical to concentration for all of us, and HSPs often relish silence.
Regardless of a person’s sensitivity to noise, however, we can all benefit from limiting the noise pollution in our environments. In fact, studies have found that silence is linked with the development of new cells in the hippocampus, which is the primary brain region when it comes to learning and memory.
But is it possible that too much of a good thing can actually be a bad thing?
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From Loving the Silence to Loathing It
I became a dedicated writer six years ago, when chronic health issues forced me to leave my full-time job and hole up at home. My two sons were living on their own by then. After decades of the non-stop chaotic responsibilities of raising children, one with an extended medical crisis, the solitude was a balm to my soul. My husband was retired — respectful of my needs, he practically tiptoed around the house. It was an HSP’s nirvana.
I allowed noise to penetrate my days in small amounts, listening to the radio as I dressed each morning, playing music when I exercised, watching TV at night. But, otherwise, I got so immersed in the quiet, I didn’t think to interrupt it.
Early in 2022, I signed a book publishing contract, and my writing took on a new urgency. The lack of auditory stimulation began to grate on my nerves. Rather than inspiring me, it felt like a vise. Most days, I wanted to scream, toss my laptop out the window, quit writing altogether, or join a convent.
Realizing That Prolonged Silence May Be Counterproductive
As I discovered first-hand, prolonged silence may be counterproductive, even for HSPs. Of course, we rarely experience true, absolute silence. But researchers have found that in laboratory settings designed for a complete absence of aural stimulation, our ears and brains essentially go into overdrive, becoming uber-sensitive to any sound, even causing hallucinations.
My house wasn’t literally silent — in fact, a quiet home is louder than a soft whisper — but maybe the extreme, prolonged lack of distraction put my brain on overdrive of a smaller scale. I was, in fact, becoming more sensitive to the neighbor’s lawnmower and the hammering and sawing coming from my husband’s basement woodshop. I didn’t want the trend to continue, so I began thinking about how I could use noise to my benefit.
Music May Increase Your Productivity and Creativity
Around the same time, I saw a tweet asking writers what kind of music they play for motivation. “None,” I replied. But it got me thinking: Could music work to my advantage?
Research suggests that certain types of music may help with certain kinds of creative tasks. To understand the findings, it’s necessary to distinguish between divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking is essentially brainstorming — generating numerous creative ideas. Convergent thinking, also called critical thinking, is finding the one best (or only correct) idea or solution.
Many creative tasks require both types of thinking. In writing, for example, grammar, syntax, and spelling have clear rules about what is right and wrong, and convergent thinking helps us edit and choose our words correctly. But creative writing, like memoir, fiction, and poetry, allows for rules to be broken and gives the writer license to choose how to express themself. In other words — divergent thinking.
Researchers have found that “happy music” (i.e., classical music high on arousal and positive mood) increases creativity when divergent thinking is required (but has no effect when convergent thinking is required).
Pachelbel’s Canon is, in my humble opinion, the most beautiful music ever written — it is my “happy music.” (In general, calming music has been found to be soothing for HSPs.) So I played it softly in the background during a writing session, once again hoping for a miracle of inspiration. It was not to be. No manna from heaven, no outpouring of lyrical words, no Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. All I gained was a sore neck from resting my chin in my hand. Now what?
Finding a Balance Between Silence and Noise Is Key
It took some deep thinking to figure out the problem, but as I gazed into space, a thought slowly gelled: I had been attempting to use music to inspire my writing, but what I needed was music (or some other form of clatter) to differentiate my writing time from the rest of the day. Was it possible that I needed a modest amount of noise throughout my day to function at my best in tranquil times? I continued searching for answers.
Some research has found that the positive effect of silence is heightened by contrasting it with noise. (Remember, true silence doesn’t occur naturally.) In other words, quiet is beneficial — and most people don’t have enough of it (or make enough of it).
I extrapolated this to my under-stimulating environs and realized that I needed to arouse my auditory senses at times — so when I turned off the arousal, I could appreciate it.
I became mindful of breaking the calm anytime I wasn’t writing. Amazon Alexa earned her keep playing music, podcasts, and news. If I became stagnant in the middle of an essay or blog, I’d move away from my physical writing space — environmental psychology is real. Whether it was going over to the couch, dining room table, or my desk, I’d then blast some tunes.
The purpose was not motivation, but interruption. When the noise started to grate on my nerves, I knew it was time to return to tranquility, to let my mind breathe as it can only do when the world is hushed.
A Bonus Lesson: Accidentally Getting Inspired by Song Lyrics
My plan was working — I started three new essays and knocked out my final manuscript revisions. Then I discovered a bonus lesson. It came during a non-writing moment as I listened to Pandora. The song Brave by Sara Bareilles came on.
I had never really paid attention to the lyrics, which urged me to speak up, to be brave with my words, to tell the truth. Like many HSPs, I fall into the trap of people-pleasing, finding it hard to speak my truth, in part because conflict feels like an assault on my senses.
Yet since I write about the struggles of this potentially destructive character trait, I took the words in Brave to heart, and the song became my anthem. Like so many writers responding to the Twitter thread, music was now a tool to motivate me.
A 3-Part Plan to Balance Noise and Quiet
If you discover you are more productive when you introduce curated noise, here’s a three-part plan to balance that need with the benefits of music and the joy of quiet:
- Keep your working environment as quiet as possible. Shut the windows, wear earplugs or noise-canceling headphones — just do what you have to do to maximize the silence.
- Intentionally introduce noise — like music, TV, videos, and podcasts — at certain intervals throughout the day (when you are not working). But make sure to turn them off as soon as they begin to irritate you.
- Experiment with “happy music.” Find tunes that arouse your senses and put you in a positive mood, music that will inspire and motivate your creative pursuits.
Although HSPs are similar in our sensitivities, we are each unique. What works for me might not work for you — we all have our own learning style. But we can all pay attention to subtleties in our needs and tailor our environments as much as possible in order to best nurture ourselves.
Now, within my curated sound-controlled home, I have quiet when I need it, noise to break the monotony, and music that helps me be brave with my words. It feels great to finally be in sync with the world.
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You might like:
- The Power of Silence for Highly Sensitive People
- What to Do When Your Highly Sensitive Soul Is in Overdrive
- Sensitive People Learn Differently. Here’s What They Need to Succeed
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