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For ADHD, White Noise Could Be an Alternative to Medication

Broadband background noise can have a positive effect on a disordered brain.

Key points

  • Some types of noise can be therapeutic for individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • White noise is moderate, consistent sound containing many frequencies with equal intensities.
  • White noise improves intrinsic attentional performance.
  • More research is needed to determine if white noise should become a part of ADHD therapy.
Source: Bryan Catota/Pexels
Source: Bryan Catota/Pexels

Could some types of noise potentially prove therapeutic for individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? Results of a growing number of recent studies indicate “yes,” despite past research showing that noise exposure, in general, impairs human cognitive performance, negatively affects patterns of brain activity, and damages mental and physical health. One online article boldly displays the headline White Noise May Be as Effective as Drugs for ADHD.

White noise and noise labeled with other colors, like brown or pink depending on pitch, is commonly defined as moderate, consistent sound containing many frequencies with equal intensities. Reading that broadband background noise, like what is produced by a whirring fan or steadily falling raindrops, can positively affect a disordered brain may not be all that surprising.

How white noise works

Authors of one of the latest studies on the topic–published in a November 2022 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health–concluded that background stimulation produced by white noise “is a beneficial non-pharmacological treatment for preschoolers with ADHD.” They added that: "White noise improves not only intrinsic attentional performance (such as decreasing omission errors and reaction time variability) but also decreases extrinsic hyperactive behaviors (such as severe fidgeting)."

At the same time, the study confirmed that such background noise could negatively impact the attention and “on-task behaviors” of those without a diagnosis of ADHD or similar neurological conditions.

Prior investigations have demonstrated how white noise, which tends to fade from a person’s consciousness during exposure, enables individuals with transient insomnia to fall asleep more quickly. A study appearing in 2017 in Frontiers in Neurology showed broadband sound administration significantly reduced—by 38 percent—the amount of time participants needed to fall asleep after getting to bed and turning the lights off. White noise also has been shown effective in lessening arousal among intensive care unit (ICU) patients when added to the normal noises of the ICU environment.

Experts contend that white, brown, or pink noise masks environmental distractions. It also affects the brain’s neurotransmitters, increasing the rate of signaling among neurons. Individuals with ADHD often are in a state of hypo-arousal. Dialing down the exterior stimuli around them while increasing neural activity inside their heads helps increase their focus and aids attention to tasks at hand. Specifically, white noise enhances the efficiency of brain signaling (stochastic resonance theory). It optimizes stimulation in ADHD patients whose brains require greater levels of sound and activity to stymie the tendency to become distracted, according to scientists.

The ADHD brain

ADHD is a syndrome involving dysregulation of certain neurological functions and related behaviors. It is among the most common psychiatric problems and is associated with inattention, poor concentration, distractedness, memory problems, lack of organizational and social skills, impulsive behavior, hyperactivity (high energy), and intense emotions. Statistics indicate the prevalence of diagnosed ADHD in the United States may be as high as 9 percent. (The percentage would likely much higher if undiagnosed cases were to be added to the mix.)

Scientists blame a reduced rate of signaling among brain neurons and inadequate brain levels of certain catecholamines (hormone-like substances), namely dopamine and norepinephrine, for at least some of the symptoms associated with ADHD. Moderate, constant background sound at specific tonal levels seems to encourage dopamine release, resulting in improved on-task behavior and better working memory in ADHD patients. For individuals whose brains already contain normal levels of dopamine, prompting the production of more of it can overstimulate and hinder cognitive performance, researchers indicate.

Should white noise become part of ADHD therapy?

Now back to the online headline of white noise being as effective as prescribed drugs in managing ADHD—a suggestion that may not be far-fetched, some investigators state. Medication that stimulates brain activity, much like the effects of consistent, low-tonal background sound, is currently a first-line treatment for ADHD, along with behavior therapy. But most psychiatrists and psychologists say, “Not so fast.” The jury is still out on effective noise applications and their potential use as a medication substitute.

First, much more research is necessary because not all ADHD patients react equally to external noise. Secondly, little is known about the most effective noise decibel levels and exposure time. Finally, scientists understand noise can ultimately have a negative impact when applied in environments where both ADHD and neurologically typical individuals are present. As a study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry suggested, white noise may cause deterioration in the performance of non-ADHD children.

The best approach to managing ADHD is multi-pronged, individualized, and wedded to various self-help techniques and behaviors. Tips to consider include:

  • Exercising regularly.
  • Practicing mindfulness and meditation to quell racing thoughts and calm the mind and body.
  • Avoiding the temptation to multitask.
  • Adding structure to one’s life through the use of calendars, organizers, even Post-it notes and apps that help keep one on task, on deadline, and on time.
  • Listening to music—an activity that some scientists say boosts mood and helps some individuals maintain focus. Of course, turn off the sound should music simply become a distraction.
  • Getting enough sleep (seven to eight hours).
  • Watching diet and avoiding sugary foods.
  • Taking cold showers.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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