How to Focus

Your ADHD Brain (Probably) Loves Brown Noise

Brown noise is a low-frequency background sound that helps people with ADHD focus and feel calm. Its millions of views on TikTok suggest that many are eager to know the science behind this psychophysical phenomenon.

We’ve heard the buzz about brown noise — or sounds we associate with white noise, but with a lower and deeper pitch — like thunder or strong winds. The hashtag #brownnoise has garnered millions of views on TikTok, with some people saying it promotes calm and concentration in ADHD brains.

ADDitude asked Joel Nigg, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and a professor in the departments of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Oregon Health & Science University, to explain the science.

Brown Noise for ADHD

Q: We’ve heard about white noise, but now brown noise is having a moment. People say it helps them to focus and relax, and even lulls them to sleep. What’s the science or theory behind why brown noise seems to work?

Studies on ADHD and brown noise are few and far between. The most common and simple theory is that performance is poor when you are drowsy (very low arousal) and when you are panicked (extreme over-arousal). When arousal is optimal, the brain is alert, focused, and effective. The theory is that the level of simulation needed to achieve optimal arousal is different for people with ADHD than it is for neurotypical peers. A portion of people with ADHD benefit from external stimulation to maintain alertness. They may try music or lights, but these can be distracting too. Brown noise provides stimulation that is not distracting.

There’s a second theory called stochastic resonance. The idea is that brown noise helps sharpen the brain’s filtering mechanism — its ability to tamp down distracting information and to sharpen what you’re trying to pay attention to. This psychophysical phenomenon is well documented but the way in which it actually works remains unclear. Also, the science does not clearly explain whether or why brown noise triggers this in the ADHD brain. Research on brown noise and ADHD brains remains too sparse to draw final conclusions.

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Q: How have researchers studied brown noise?

Typically, volunteers undertake difficult cognitive tasks, like solving math problems, under different noise conditions in the laboratory, while researchers measure physiological functioning (via EEG recordings of cortical and other indices of arousal), along with task performance.

Q: Is there a downside to brown noise? 

It’s not costly to download brown noise, and there’s little risk, provided the volume is not excessive (a high volume can damage ears). Some research suggests that most people with ADHD have cortical under-arousal and a minority have over-arousal. For those with over-arousal, brown noise might interfere with attention. But the user would quickly sense this. In other words, there’s little harm in listening to it and seeing if it works for you.

Brown Noise to Improve Focus: Next Steps