How to cope with ADHD: What about brown noise?

How to cope with ADHD? Whether it’s for you or your child, therapy and meds may work well. But we can’t ignore complementary interventions. For instance, brown noise.

’If you are drowsy (low arousal) or panicked (high arousal), then your attention and focus will be poor. Arousal has to be just right to maximize performance.’

Hot on the trail of new and helpful subject matter, a recent Psychology Today article grabbed my attention.

”Brown Noise and ADHD: What’s the Scoop on the Latest Buzz?”, was written by Joel T. Nigg, PhD. A clinical psychologist, researcher, and author, Dr. Nigg is a world-renowned expert on attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Let’s have a look at his take on the impact of brown noise on ADHD.

By the way, I’m thinking you know ADHD affects children – and adults.

What is brown noise?

Dr. Nigg begins by acknowledging the recent buzz over exciting reports regarding the benefits of brown noise for ADHD.

Okay, but what is it?

Interesting: “brown” has nothing to do with color. It references 19th century Scottish botanist, Robert Brown, who discovered Brownian motion – which creates the sound.

It’s also referred to as Brownian noise and red noise.

According to Nigg, brown noise is full-spectrum noise, meaning it contains all frequencies in equal measure across the spectrum of audible sound.

In that regard, it’s similar to white noise, but the sound is lower and richer.

Brown noise bennies

It’s said that brown noise facilitates a calm and focused mental state for tasks like studying and writing. And it’s believed to induce relaxation because of its fit with the brain at rest.

For anxiety disorder sufferers – frequently on the lookout for threats – brown noise may support calming, sleep, and concentration in the midst of all the external and internal alarm hubbub.

And research has shown that brown noise can also soothe ringing in the ears, even to the extreme of tinnitus.

Want to hear it? You’ll find a variety of samples on YouTube.

ADHD and brown noise: The science

We’re about to review some important and interesting information, so let’s handle a few definitions first…

  • Cortical: having to do with the brain’s cortex – the thin gray matter outer layer of the brain responsible for intelligence, personality, planning and organizing, processing sensory input, and more.
  • Arousal: the state of physiological activation or cortical responsiveness associated with sensory stimulation.
  • Attention: a state in which cognitive resources are focused on certain aspects of the environment rather than others, and the central nervous system is in a state of readiness to respond to stimuli.
  • Yerkes-Dodson law: performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases.

Optimal arousal theory

Okay, among the scientific theories behind why brown noise could work for ADHD, Dr. Nigg submits that the optimal arousal theory is the only one that’s ADHD-specific.

He explains that the notion of optimal cortical arousal for attention and performance dates back to the Yerkes-Dodson law in 1908.

The bottom-line: optimal performance depends on optimal arousal. Nigg simplifies…

If you are drowsy (low arousal) or panicked (high arousal), then your attention and focus will be poor. Arousal has to be ‘just right’ to maximize performance.

Makes sense, right?

Individual variation in stimulation sensitivity

It also makes sense that the optimal level of arousal isn’t a universal constant – it can’t be the same for everyone.

That means it’s about the nature of the task and individual variation in stimulation sensitivity.

There was a time when psychologists ran with the idea that individual differences in arousal dependency were attributable to the personality types extrovert and introvert.

That particular chase didn’t pan out; however, it led to a vigilance regulation model to conform to knowledge of the neural bases of attention and alertness.

As a result, Nigg points out, a large body of electrophysiological work has suggested that many children with ADHD are characterized by low cortical arousal.

And when it’s addressed, their attention and behavior come into focus.

The frontal cortex

how to cope with adhd

Frontal lobe: the approx 3 mm outer layer is the frontal cortex

The scene of the action is the brain’s frontal cortex. Dr. Nigg suggests we think of it as the driver of a car. When it’s tired, the car weaves on the road.

Keep in mind that when the frontal cortex is under-active, the entire brain isn’t well-regulated. There’s just too much chaos.

But when it “wakes up,” it can suppress the rest of the brain to enable maximum attention to the task.


However, Nigg says it appears a subset of children (and adults?) with ADHD are over-aroused. They would be expected to have their attention worsen with brown noise.

A few small studies have suggested children with ADHD may benefit from white noise. That may be an option for the over-aroused.

Dr. Nigg’s work suggests the arousal model works for a particular subset of children with ADHD who can be phenotypically (by observable traits, such as height, eye color, and blood type) characterized.

You can see why this type of clinical differentiation helps resolve discrepancies as to whether or not there is optimal arousal.

ADHD and brown noise: The doc’s final thoughts

Nigg acknowledges that actual studies of the effects of brown (and white) noise on ADHD are few and use small samples.

As a result, science doesn’t permit conclusions as to whether brown noise is a placebo effect or if it has a true attentional benefit.

That said, Nigg states that as long as ear damage doesn’t occur from the volume being too loud, the risks are low. So if it seems to help, there’s little harm in using it.

Dr. Nigg looks forward to larger, more systematic studies of brown and white noise in ADHD, as well as the individual differences studies regarding who benefits and who doesn’t.

The power of sound

How to cope with ADHD? We know the primary players, but we can’t turn our backs on complementary interventions – like brown noise.

Never downplay the power of sound when it comes to changing the base state of the brain.

Couldn’t have included everything, so be sure to read Dr. Nigg’s article: “Brown Noise and ADHD: What’s the Scoop on the Latest Buzz?”.

And check out his website: Getting Ahead of ADHD.

Hey, don’t forget about those Chipur mood and anxiety info and inspiration titles.

Content image: Anatomography, via Wikimedia Commoms attribution-ShareAlike 2.1 Japan, no changes made

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