What is the “brown noise” trend taking over TikTok?

People swear it helps them focus, but is there any science behind it?

Maxine McCrann
Life

Everybody seems to have undiagnosed ADHD these days and social media platforms like TikTok have pushed our attention spans from short to so short I can’t even remember what I was gonna say next. It seems like we’re constantly looking for ways to improve our focus and now, users on TikTok are claiming that “brown noise” is a fast and easy solution to our attention span woes.

The hashtag #brownnoise has more than 77 million views on TikTok and people on the platform swear that the sound has helped them fall asleep, cope with anxiety, and pay attention through their ADHD. Many also talk about brown noise as an antithesis to white noise, its more popular and allegedly less effective cousin. “White noise uses low, mid and high frequency notes, sounds like bringing a pot of anxiety to a boil,” user @mary.orton explains on TikTok. “Brown noise uses only low frequency and bass heavy notes [and] sounds like thunder or a distant waterfall.”

Although brown noise might be soothing to the ears, the boldest recurring claim I found online was that it can actually help people with ADHD, something that I wanted to dig a bit deeper into. ADHD and ADD in adults is still being studied, but there is a general consensus that the condition comes from having a lower than average level of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that is closely related to dopamine. Someone with ADHD or ADD has a brain that works fast and is frequently on overdrive, which in adults can look like constantly starting new tasks before finishing old ones, forgetfulness and frequent irritability, according to the NHS.

Joell Nigg, the director of the Center for ADHD Research at Oregon Health & Science University, told SELF magazine that brown noise can arouse the brains of people with ADHD, who need more stimulation than the average person in order to focus. Brown noise is just distracting enough to cause the ADHD brain to tune in but not interesting or loud enough to actually hold someone’s attention on its own, per SELF. Essentially, it’s like flipping an ‘on’ button for people who can’t just sit down and bring themselves to do tasks they feel are mundane.

In addition to that, there is already research out there that shows a link between white noise and focus; one study that involved children between the ages of 7 and 12 found that playing white noise helped children with ADHD perform better on memory and verbal tasks, per Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD).

There does seem to be some scientific basis for the effectiveness of brown noise when it comes to focus, but it’s also likely that the difference between brown noise and white noise may come down to a matter of personal taste as opposed to something inherent in brown noise that makes it the superior background sound. Maybe the fact that it’s trendy and not many have heard of it yet is part of its allure. What matters most is that it makes some people feel better and more on top of things when they’re listening to it — it’s why I played it while writing this and although I can’t say it wasn’t a placebo, I did manage to better ignore the incessant chatter in my head.