Dr. Nigg explains that the idea that brown noise can help people with ADHD focus aligns with other research on something called optimal arousal theory. Basically, he says, the theory posits that “the reason it’s hard for people with ADHD to pay attention is that they’re not alert enough.” By this logic, then, their brains need a certain amount of extra stimulation compared to folks without ADHD to rouse into “interested” mode. “What the brown noise is supposed to be doing is subtly raising that arousal, thus making people with ADHD more alert and more focused,” he says.
There’s also some science that suggests brown noise could help anyone—not just people with ADHD—stay focused. A second scientific concept, “stochastic resonance,” has also been cited in existing research to support the idea that white or brown noise can, perhaps counterintuitively, help a person’s brain muffle diversions in order to concentrate on one thing.
Dr. Nigg explains it using an example: Imagine your significant other is talking to you, but you can’t process what they’re saying to you because your TV is blaring. “White noise would solve that problem, according to stochastic resonance theory, by amplifying the signal relative to the noise,” he says. (The amplified signal, in this instance, is your partner’s speech.) “Your brain takes advantage of the noise, making it easier for you to muffle what you’re trying to ignore”—the TV sounds—“instead of what you’re trying to attend to.” That weighted-blanket-on-my-brain feeling just might be stochastic resonance at work.
Can brown noise be harmful?
Dr. Kraus says that unwanted noise can do more harm than good when it comes to how the brain processes sound. She’s previously written about what she calls the disruptive biological consequences of external noise, pointing, in part, to research on its negative impact on children’s reading comprehension. But Dr. Kraus is referring to rackets that come and go sporadically, such as car alarms, not the steady thrum of a sound like brown noise.
What’s more, “our brains are not all the same,” Dr. Nigg adds, meaning, we don’t all respond to certain sounds in the same way—a point that Dr. Kraus agrees with. Going back to that optimal arousal theory, brown noise might be a gift to someone whose brain needs a dash of extra stimulation, while someone who has zero problems sitting down to concentrate may find it distracting.
Of course, blasting any sound into your ears at top volume around the clock isn’t advisable. Like some other ADHD coping strategies I’ve tried, brown noise may become less effective over time. “I imagine if you used it every day, all day, the effect could gradually wear off,” Dr. Nigg says, because your brain may get too used to that particular stimulation. It’s a tool, not a one-stop productivity solution.
So why, according to me and the many equally convinced #ADHDsquad TikTokers populating my feed, does brown noise seem to work better than white noise for focus? Why did my nose wrinkle in distaste when my YouTube loop autoplayed into a much-tinnier new white noise “song” that I enjoyed much less? “It may be a placebo,” Dr. Nigg offers. “Everyone’s saying it works better, so it works better.”
In any case, Dr. Nigg believes that brown noise is reasonably safe to listen to, and if it works for you, it works. “The evidence happens to be very good,” he says. “But even if the evidence was poor, why not do it if it helps you and there’s no meaningful risk?”
For me, this possible placebo is delivering results: I’m returning texts within 24 hours and hitting writing deadlines on time (ahem). The whole reason that digital ADHD communities exist on TikTok, Reddit, and elsewhere online is because the behaviors that put each of us on the path to diagnosis can strain every aspect of our lives—from relationships to academic and professional performance—and we’re looking for tools to relieve some of that pressure. I’m gonna bump that brown noise while I’m working for as long as it keeps pushing me forward. Just let me clean a little and google a few things first.