Learning to Tune Out Distraction

Learning to Tune Out Distraction

by Earl Vickers, The Sound Guy, Inc.


A companion article, “Coping with Speech Noise in the Modern Workplace” [1], examined the problem of office noise and the resulting stress, distraction and loss of productivity. Irrelevant speech was found to be the most distracting type of sound, because the mind tends to follow the unwanted conversation instead of the worker’s own thoughts.

The article reviewed the acoustical limitations of cubicles and open-plan offices and recommended a number of possible remedies, including minimizing the problem at the source (by encouraging a culture of acoustic courtesy) and masking unwanted conversations with nature sounds, instrumental music, and/or distant chatter.

This article will focus on a complementary approach to the problem. Since some people are less disturbed and distracted by extraneous conversation than others, it seems possible that the ability to tune out noise might be a learnable skill. We will explore the practice of mindfulness as a way of learning to reducing the stress and distraction of office noise.

A Startling Discovery

The startle reflex is just that — a reflex, an involuntary response to a sudden unexpected stimulus. Within the first third of a second after a surprising sound, everyone responds in the same way: the same five facial muscles contract, and we experience an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and sweating. Since it is a function of the reptilian brain, the startle reflex cannot be suppressed by force of will. [2, 3]

At least, that’s what scientists believed until they tested Öser, a European-born Tibetan monk, in the laboratory. When a very loud sound (equivalent to a firecracker or gunshot) was played while Öser practiced “one-pointed” meditation, his facial movements were quite small, and his heart rate and blood pressure actually decreased. And when the sound was played while he practiced “open state” meditation, his face did not move a muscle [3].

Öser said, “When I went into the open state, the explosive sound seemed to me softer, as if I was distanced from the sensations, hearing the sound from afar…. If you can remain properly in this state, the bang seems neutral, like a bird crossing the sky.” [3]. While these are impressive findings, suggesting that the ability to tune out noise may indeed be a learnable skill, what are the implications for those of us who are unlikely to spend months or years in intensive meditation practice?


[1] E. Vickers, “Coping with Speech Noise in the Modern Workplace,” http://chatterblocker.com/whitepapers/conversational_distraction.html.
[2] D. Goleman, Dalai Lama, Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, Bantam.
[3] D. Goleman, “The Lama in the Lab: Neuroscience and Meditation,” Shambhala Sun.