There is evidence that background noise affects the way students study. Whether or not it distracts them or helps them study better primarily depends on the individual’s personality and the characteristics of the background noise.
Personality: Introverts are generally unable to focus with background noise. A study particularly found that they performed worse on a reading comprehension test, a memory exam, and some arithmetic activity with background music and office noise than they did without either. In fact, background noise made most introverts feel “pressured” and “annoyed”. They preferred studying or performing mental tasks in silence where no such distraction would expend their mental resources.
Extroverts, meanwhile, showed similar test results with and without background music or office noise. The environment as it pertains to background noise does not matter to them; they can function well with or without it.
Experts say the main reason for this difference in the effect of noise on studying individuals lies in how their brain is structured. Noise essentially diverts the mental resources of the introvert’s brain that is responsible for memory recall and problem-solving and distracts them as a result. In an extrovert’s brain, the blood flow to these regions is comparably lower. This means extroverts may have recall and problem-solving abilities that are inferior to introverts but they are at an advantage in an environment that is filled with distractions. In some cases, extroverts are even able to study and retain information better when they are outside the library where it is “too silent” because silence “distracts” them.
Type of Noise: Noise is typically considered detrimental to cognitive performance. However, research also point to syncopation, the “speed” of the noise that makes it noticeable and distracting or otherwise. Library background noise, for example, has a tempo and beat to it that is predictable and pleasing to the ears. Noise from a functioning electric fan or the subtle sound that the air conditioner makes is on a relatively steady pace–enough to not be distracting. To an introvert, this stability in sound levels provide a certain level of comfort. There are also types of music that can be relaxing and may help people study better, as the Mozart Effect suggests.
On the other hand, unpredictable sounds and unsteady tempo like intermittent vehicle noises can “jolt” the brain. Once the rhythm is broken, the brain has to try to get back into its natural state.
For people who can’t stand background noise and find them distracting, keeping focused and memorizing can be a challenge. Most of them would alleviate the situation by getting noise-canceling earplugs to work, turning down the volume (of television for example) or, ultimately, leaving and finding a quieter spot. There are also ways to improve concentration when distracted, such as through breathing meditation.