In this post, I want to elaborate on a few issues with headphone use that hold them back from being a silver bullet.
Physical Hearing Damage
There are permanent physical consequences from prolonged headphone use. The effects accrue gradually, and as such people don’t notice that it’s happening.
From the American Osteopathic Association, Dr. James Foy explains:
I stress to my patients and the parents of my patients that if you can’t hear anything going on around you when listening to headphones, the decibel level is too high.
As a rule of thumb, you should only use [personal audio] devices at levels up to 60% of maximum volume for a total of 60 minutes a day. The louder the volume, the shorter your duration should be. At maximum volume, you should listen for only about five minutes a day.
ENT physician, Dr. Michael Seidman, continues in an article from the New York Times:
If you listen to music with earbuds or headphones at levels that block out normal discourse, you are in effect dealing lethal blows to the hair cells in your ears.
When you’re working in an environment so noisy that you have to pump music (or white noise) into your ear canal so loudly that it blocks out the other noise, you are doing permanent damage to your hearing.
Music Is Distracting
This is one of the trickier issues to discuss, as people love music and have a hard time separating the pleasure they get from listening to music from their effectiveness while listening to music.
If you ask software developers about what they blast out of those ubiquitous headphones, you’ll get answers like this:
"It's not just something in the background to help me concentrate; it's a source of inspiration, a door to free my mind from our day-to-day routines, and, at the same time, it's a way to memorize an experience," says Ortali. "I play tracks in a loop, sometimes the exact same track all day long. It's a way to connect with the lyrics, and move the tempo beneath my skin."
Scientific minds get very un-scientific when it comes to their favorite music.
In a terrific article from The Atlantic, “How Headphones Changed the World”:
Science says we're full of it. Listening to music hurts our ability to recall other stimuli, and any pop song -- loud or soft -- reduces overall performance for both extraverts and introverts. A Taiwanese study linked music with lyrics to lower scores on concentration tests for college students, and other research have shown music with words scrambles our brains' verbal-processing skills. "As silence had the best overall performance it would still be advisable that people work in silence," one report dryly concluded.
If headphones are so bad for productivity, why do so many people at work have headphones?
That brings us to a psychological answer: There is evidence that music relaxes our muscles, improves our mood, and can even moderately reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety. What music steals in acute concentration, it returns to us in the form of good vibes.
Headphones give us absolute control over our audio-environment, allowing us to privatize our public spaces.
People conflate the positive psychological effects of creating a cocoon of their favorite sounds in an environment of noise they can’t control with positive effects on their productivity.
Feeling of Vulnerability
As I touched on in a previous post, seating people with their backs to a high-traffic area leads to a constant sense of unease and vulnerability.
People in this position have lost their sense of sight to detect when someone is approaching them. When you add headphones to the equation, they’ve now also lost their sense of hearing.
Headphone use in a noisy open plan environment can be a catch-22. The noise is so oppressive that you want to block it out, but then you have to deal with the feeling of vulnerability and frequent startles of people approaching you from behind without hearing them.
So What to Do?
Side Note: Noise-Cancelling Headphones
I want to quickly address “noise-cancelling” headphones in particular, as they are mentioned often as a quick fix for the problem of office noise. The technology at use was designed to cancel the low, constant rumble of aircraft engines. So while it may work to cancel the noise of your office air conditioner, it’s powerless against the voices of your co-workers (the real noise you’d want to cancel in an office environment). Read some of the reviews for the popular Bose QuietComfort noise-cancelling headphones, and you’ll get the picture.