There’s a new buzz on TikTok, well, not a buzz exactly. It’s more of a buzz, maybe waves crashing, a fan purring, or a steady, heavy rain. To me, it sounds like an empty plane, cruising peacefully at altitude. It’s brown noise, a close cousin of the better-known white noise, and TikTok users, particularly the platform’s ADHD community, are all over it: there’s 85.3 million views for the hashtag #brownnoise.
A top rated video (1.3 million views) shows user @NatalyaBubb trying out brown noise. She seems initially surprised, then spellbound. “Where did all the thoughts go?” she reads the caption on her face with wide eyes. Commenters on her and other brown noise clips are mostly, though not exclusively, enthusiastic. “I closed my eyes and literally thought of NOTHING… Makes my brain feel smooth in the best possible way”; “This felt like fresh air in my ears”; “Like a soft, heavy blanket that I’ve securely wrapped my brain in,” he says. a writer with ADHD.
The “brown” in brown noise is not a color, but a reference to the sound that mimics Brownian motion, the motion pollen makes in water, identified by botanist Robert Brown in 1827. In essence, brown noise is the familiar, static sound of white noise (i.e., all audible frequencies simultaneously) but with the low-frequency notes boosted and the less-pleasing high-frequency notes lowered, counteracting the natural tendency of the human ear to hear higher frequencies with more strength.
“Brown noise is a more pleasant listening experience because most of the higher frequencies, which can be harsh or distracting to the listener, are removed,” says Giles Williams, music director at Commercial Music Service. rehash.
He has a following beyond the ADHD community, including author Zadie Smith. “I hear brown noise… day and night,” she told a penguin podcast. “I live in this naked soundscape.” My colleague Nikola discovered brown noise at university. “I would only manage to concentrate on the coffee shops. When I was poor and couldn’t afford to go to a coffee shop, I tried to find coffee shop sounds on YouTube and then came across something called “brown noise for concentration”. Since then, I use it whenever my mind is everywhere and I need to get some work done.”
Several people I talk to use brown noise to help them fall asleep at night (“I can’t sleep without it,” says one. “It helps me not wake up suddenly at every little noise,” says another). You can get eight hours worth Radio CBeebies and some tinnitus sufferers find that it reduces their symptoms. According to Williams, it is now considered “a viable option for use in deep relaxation rooms or sleep pods” for wellness businesses that want to move away from whale song.
Static sound from white noise has been shown to enhance sleep and something cognitive tasks for children with ADHD; “White noise” machines have been around since the 1960s. Are there the same proven benefits with brown noise?
Dan Berlau, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Regis University in Colorado, reviewed the literature about the benefits of white noise. “I don’t think there’s anything magical about brown noise,” he tells her. “I think all of those sounds can have similar effects on the brain, but people like the way brown noise sounds, so that’s the one that’s catching on. It seems that, for this ADHD community on TikTok, they have identified brown noise as something that helps them, which is fantastic.”
What people actually experience when they hear brown noise is unclear. Research has yet to investigate the calming “don’t think” response to brown noise that the tik tok Describe the ADHD community. Still, “it makes sense,” says Berlau. People with ADHD don’t have the regular trickle of “tonic dopamine” from neurotypical brains, she explains, leading to “constant thoughts that they can’t really shake. Creating this external noise that kind of ‘blankets’ the brain; makes sense it would quiet some of that brain noise. It just hasn’t been experimentally confirmed.”
There are probably other elements at play: The therapeutic effects of full-spectrum noise (whether white, brown, or otherwise) have been demonstrated only at high decibel levels, says Berlau. People who find that their focus or concentration improves with low-level background brown noise may benefit from “sound masking”: “The sound blocks out other sounds so you are less distracted.”
This is probably also why people report improved sleep with brown noise. There may also be some placebo effect. “If a person on TikTok wants to feel the healing power of brown noise, they will probably feel it,” says Berlau. It’s not that he’s not happy with fashion. “My son has ADHD, we are struggling with a variety of treatments and the more evidence and research on this the better.”
Brown noise is not for everyone. “There are huge individual differences in the way people’s brains work, so trying to create some sort of one-size-fits-all solution is unlikely to work,” says Berlau. My friend Helena has ADHD and is ambivalent. “It’s completely unsettling that my thoughts stop after 45 years of cognitive hyperactivity,” she says. “But it seems to work.”
I don’t have ADHD, but in a week overloaded with multiple competitive deadlines, travel, and a worrying health curve for my dog, my thoughts are everywhere, all at once. When I try out a variety of brown noise playlists from Spotify and YouTube, the effect is mixed: some I hate out of the box, others are bearable as background noise, without particularly improving my concentration. Actually, when I get down to work that requires careful attention, my immediate instinct is to turn it off. My husband, who has tinnitus, finds that he aggravates his symptoms instead of relieving them.
But if you’re distracted, overstimulated, or just curious, there’s no reason not to listen, as Berlau points out. “Unless you’re blasting it to the point where you’re hurting your ears, there’s probably no harm in trying this out to see if it helps with your concentration.”