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Year : 2012  |  Volume : 14  |  Issue : 61  |  Page : 292--296

A 3 year update on the influence of noise on performance and behavior

Charlotte Clark1, Patrik Sörqvist2,  
1 Centre for Psychiatry, Barts and the London School of Medicine, Queen Mary, University of London, London, EC1M 6BQ, United Kingdom
2 Department of Building, Energy and Environmental Engineering, University of Gävle, Gävle SE-801 76; Linnaeus Centre HEAD,Swedish Institute for Disability Research, Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden

Correspondence Address:
Charlotte Clark
Senior Lecturer Environmental and Mental Health Epidemiology, Centre for Psychiatry, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London, Old Anatomy Building, Charterhouse Square, London EC1M 6BQ
United Kingdom


The effect of noise exposure on human performance and behavior continues to be a focus for research activities. This paper reviews developments in the field over the past 3 years, highlighting current areas of research, recent findings, and ongoing research in two main research areas: Field studies of noise effects on children's cognition and experimental studies of auditory distraction. Overall, the evidence for the effects of external environmental noise on children's cognition has strengthened in recent years, with the use of larger community samples and better noise characterization. Studies have begun to establish exposure-effect thresholds for noise effects on cognition. However, the evidence remains predominantly cross-sectional and future research needs to examine whether sound insulation might lessen the effects of external noise on children's learning. Research has also begun to explore the link between internal classroom acoustics and children's learning, aiming to further inform the design of the internal acoustic environment. Experimental studies of the effects of noise on cognitive performance are also reviewed, including functional differences in varieties of auditory distraction, semantic auditory distraction, individual differences in susceptibility to auditory distraction, and the role of cognitive control on the effects of noise on understanding and memory of target speech materials. In general, the results indicate that there are at least two functionally different types of auditory distraction: One due to the interruption of processes (as a result of attention being captured by the sound), another due to interference between processes. The magnitude of the former type is related to individual differences in cognitive control capacities (e.g., working memory capacity); the magnitude of the latter is not. Few studies address noise effects on behavioral outcomes, emphasizing the need for researchers to explore noise effects on behavior in more detail.

How to cite this article:
Clark C, Sörqvist P. A 3 year update on the influence of noise on performance and behavior.Noise Health 2012;14:292-296

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Clark C, Sörqvist P. A 3 year update on the influence of noise on performance and behavior. Noise Health [serial online] 2012 [cited 2021 Mar 5 ];14:292-296
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The effect of noise exposure on human performance and behavior continues to be a focus for research activities. The effect of environmental noise exposure on children's cognitive performance and learning has been researched since the early 1970s. In recent years, the effect of chronic noise exposure on children's cognition has been examined by methodologically robust epidemiological studies, whilst the effect of acute noise exposure has been examined in experimental studies. The aim of this research is to inform guidelines for external environmental noise exposure and the planning of school, office, and residential environments, as well as to inform the design of the internal acoustic environment and interventions that might improve performance and learning in schools, as well as productivity in offices. Recent advancements in the field include the use of larger-scale epidemiological community samples and better characterization of noise measurement. This paper highlights some of the recent developments in the field of noise effects on performance and behavior over the past 3 years summarizing developments in field studies of noise effects on children's cognitive performance and in experimental studies of auditory distraction.

 Recent Research

Epidemiological studies of noise effects on cognitive performance

Overall, evidence for the effects of noise on children's cognition has strengthened in recent years. [1] Several studies have demonstrated that children exposed to chronic aircraft noise exposure at school have poorer reading ability, memory, and school performance on nationally standardized tests than children who are not exposed. [2],[3],[4],[5],[6],[7],[8],[9],[10],[11] Most research has been carried out in primary school children aged between 5 and 12 years. However, the evidence is predominantly cross-sectional, with evidence from longitudinal studies only beginning to emerge. [4],[12] Studies have begun to examine exposure-effect relationships, to identify thresholds for noise effects on health and cognition, which can be used to inform guidelines for noise exposure. [12]

The RANCH project (Road Traffic Noise and Aircraft Noise Exposure and Children's Cognition and Health), the largest study of noise and children's cognition undertaken to date, examined the effects of aircraft noise and road traffic noise exposure at primary school on the cognitive performance of 2844 9-10 year old children attending 89 schools around Heathrow (London), Schiphol (Amsterdam), and Barajas (Madrid) airports finding linear exposure-effect relationships between aircraft noise exposure at school and children's reading comprehension and recognition memory. [4],[12],[13] A further paper at the conference presented preliminary findings of a follow-up study of the UK cohort in secondary school, one of the first longitudinal studies of its type, which suggested a trend for both aircraft noise exposure at primary school and secondary school to be associated with poorer reading comprehension assessed at 15 and 16 years of age. [4] Further longitudinal studies on large-scale samples remain a research priority.

The Federal Interagency Committee on Aviation Noise (FICAN) funded a pilot study that assessed the relationship between aircraft noise reduction and standardized test scores. [6],[14] The study evaluated whether abrupt aircraft noise reduction within classrooms, caused either by airport closure or newly implemented sound insulation, was associated with improvements in test scores, in 35 public schools near three US airports in Illinois and Texas. This study is one of the only recent studies to examine the effectiveness of school sound insulation programs as few intervention studies have been carried out. [2],[15] Overall, this study found some evidence for effects of aircraft noise reduction and improved test results, although some associations were null and some associations were not in the direction hypothesized. This was a pilot study and the authors stress that the airports and schools selected for the study may not be representative and that further, larger studies are required. A larger scale study of this nature is currently ongoing funded by the Aviation Cooperative Research Program.

Several pathways for effects of chronic noise exposure on children's cognition have been suggested including teacher and pupil frustration, [16] learned helplessness, [17] impaired attention, [5],[16] increased arousal, [18] indiscriminate filtering out of noise during cognitive activities resulting in loss of focused attention/concentration, [19] noise annoyance, and sleep disturbance. [20] A recent secondary analysis of night-time noise exposure in the cross-sectional Munich and RANCH study datasets found that self-reported sleep disturbance did not mediate the association of aircraft noise exposure and cognitive impairment in children. [21] In the RANCH sample, whilst night-time aircraft noise exposure at the child's home was associated with impaired reading comprehension and recognition memory, night-time aircraft noise had no additional effect on these cognitive outcomes, once day-time noise exposure had been taken into account. These findings suggest that the school should be the main focus for the protection of children against the effects of aircraft noise on children's performance. [21]

Recent years have seen research begin to explore the link between internal classroom acoustics and children's learning outcomes. [22],[23],[24],[25],[26],[27],[28],[29] These studies typically focus upon noise interference with verbal communication as the mechanism for the effect: Some studies simply describe the acoustic characteristics of classrooms, some specifically assess speech intelligibility, and a few relate acoustic conditions to performance outcomes such as individually completed cognitive tests, as well as nationally standardized tests. [28] At the conference, an ongoing study, the ISESS project (Identifying a Sound Environment for Secondary Schools) - a 3-year project investigating the effects on teaching and learning of different acoustic designs within secondary schools and classrooms in the United Kingdom was presented. [30] This study will build knowledge as it focuses on secondary school rather than primary school children.

A further paper at the conference reported on the World Health Organisation's Burden of Disease from Environmental Noise project, [31] estimating that for children's cognitive performance, 45,036 disability-adjusted life years are lost each year in the Europe A region, for children aged between 7 and 19 years due to environmental noise exposure. [32] This compares with 61,000 years for ischaemic heart disease, 654,000 years for noise annoyance, and 903,000 years for sleep disturbance. [31]

Experimental studies of noise effects on cognitive performance

Functional differences between types of auditory distraction

During the past 3 years, a set of theoretically interesting findings have been reported in the literature. One theoretical debate has concerned whether the effect of sound on serial recall is caused by a conflict between serial order processes or whether it is caused by attentional capture. To address this question, let us consider the difference between the following two effects. The sound sequence "k l m v r q c" is more distracting to serial recall than is the sound sequence "c c c c c c c." This finding is called the changing-state effect.[33],[34] An auditory event that stands out or deviates from the recent auditory past, such as the sound "m" in the sound sequence "c c c m c c c," also disrupts serial recall. This phenomenon is known as the deviation effect.[35],[36] In a set of recent experiments, Jones, Hughes, and colleagues [35],[37] have shown that the two effects are caused by separate mechanisms. Based on this work, Hughes et al. [35] have proposed a duplex-mechanism account of auditory distraction whereby the changing-state effect is the result of interference between order processes whereas the deviation effect is caused by attentional capture. Sound, it seems, can impair cognitive performance in two functionally different ways: Either by interfering with the deliberate processes that are engaged in the focal task or by interrupting the execution of the processes (but see [38] ).

Semantic auditory distraction

The role played by the semantic properties of speech has until recently been somewhat elusive. Older studies have provided conflicting results, some suggesting that disruption is larger when task-irrelevant speech is semantically related to the target material [39],[40] whereas other studies suggest that disruption is solely a result of the physical properties of the sound. [41],[42] Recently, however, Marsh and colleagues [43],[44] have shown that when the focal task requires semantic processing (e.g., retrieving items on the basis of their meaning) the semanticity of irrelevant speech is more disruptive than the sound's acoustic properties. Marsh and colleagues have employed an experimental paradigm whereby each experimental trial involves visually-presented to-be-recalled exemplars that are members of the same semantic category (e.g., fruit). During some trials, the participants are also presented with to-be-ignored spoken words that are either taken from the same semantic category as the to-be-recalled items (e.g., other fruit) or from a different semantic category (e.g., tools). In this paradigm, recall is poorer in the semantically related condition, but only when the participants are allowed to recall the items in free order. This finding is called the between-sequence semantic similarity effect. Marsh and colleagues have interpreted these findings within an interference-by-process approach to auditory distraction, similar to that applied to the changing-state effect. [43],[45] Semantic auditory distraction appears to be caused by deliberate inhibition of nontarget competitors-activated by speech-that spreads to target items and thus impairs recall.

Individual differences in susceptibility to auditory distraction

The reason why people differ in susceptibility to auditory distraction has also been debated during the past 3 years. This debate has mainly concerned whether auditory distraction can be overruled by cognitive control. In support of a role for cognitive control in auditory distraction, Sörqvist and colleagues [44],[46],[47],[48],[49] have shown that individuals with high working memory capacity (WMC) are generally less susceptible to auditory distraction. This conclusion is consistent with the notion that older individuals, who are known to be more lenient in cognitive control generally, are more susceptible to the effects of speech on prose memory. [50] However, the conclusion is qualified by an intriguing finding. High-WMC individuals are less susceptible to the deviation effect, but not to the changing-state effect. [47] It appears, therefore, as if some but not all types of auditory distraction can be overruled by cognitive control, supporting a duplex-mechanism account of auditory distraction.

Applied experimental research

Most applied experimental research in the past has concerned noise in schools. Effects of noise in other environments, like open-plan offices, have been relatively neglected. In recent years, however, several open-plan office studies have been reported. [51],[52],[53] These investigations have shown that noise does indeed impair work related performance, just as in schools, and some of these effects may be attenuated by applying masking sound. Another area that has been quite neglected in the past is how noise impairs memory of spoken information. In a series of recent experiments, however, Kjellberg, Ljung, and colleagues [54],[55],[56] have shown that low signal-to-noise ratio and reverberation impairs memory of spoken materials in comparison with better listening conditions, even when the participants can hear what is said. The general conclusion from this line of research is that classroom acoustics should, at least in part, be evaluated by applying a memory criterion (i.e. how much the pupils can remember from what they hear) rather than a comprehension criterion.

 Future Research Directions

The European Network on Noise and Health (ENNAH) recently published recommendations for future research needs in the field of noise effects on cognition (see These recommendations suggest that to understand the causal pathways between aircraft noise exposure and cognition, and design preventive interventions there is a need to study the associations longitudinally. Another area where knowledge is lacking concerns the question of what can be done to reduce noise-induced learning impairments; there has been little research testing whether sound insulation of classrooms might lessen the effects of aircraft noise on children's learning. It was also suggested that future studies should examine a range of additional noise metrics such as the number of noise events and peak sound events to assess their associations with children's cognitive performance. Finally, whilst recent evidence of exposure-effect relationships between aircraft noise exposure and children's cognition has provided knowledge about thresholds for effects, further examination of exposure-effect relationships in different contexts, for different samples, and for different noise metrics remains a research priority.

We would like to take the opportunity to request two lines of laboratory studies that could prove fruitful in the future. Laboratory studies could investigate how the spatial distribution of the irrelevant sound sources and the target materials influence auditory distraction. This line of study could further elucidate functional differences between various forms of auditory distraction and how the two hemispheres of the brain process sound differently. Moreover, knowledge in this realm would enhance our understanding of how to build classrooms and offices with optimal sound distribution. Moreover, most experimental studies use tasks wherein participants are (often visually) presented with some material and asked to remember it for later recall, to make inferences or to do some other cognitive operation with the material presented. Very few studies have looked at the effects of noise on tasks whereby the participants produce materials themselves, [57] even though production tasks such as writing are very common in school and office settings. Future studies should further investigate the effects of noise on writing and similar tasks.

At this time, there remains a lack of studies of noise effects on behavior. A recent systematic review [58] highlighted studies that have found that loud noise exposure in bars and nightclubs is associated both with increased aggressive behavior as well as with intoxication. Such studies illustrate links between noise exposure and behavior that have important public health implications. In terms of behavioral outcomes, one conference paper reported on an increased risk of accidents and injuries at work with occupational noise exposure [59] and another examined the role of intensive care unit noise on nurses' behavior [60] but overall, few studies addressed behavioral outcomes, reinforcing the need for the field to identify and explore noise effects on behavior in more detail.


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