My Journey into the Mysterious World of Psychoacoustics

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at EIAS2015. My journey began with a flight to Copenhagen followed by a bus trip across the Øresund Bridge, the famed bridge where the bisected body of a politician was found in the Broen Swedish/Danish TV drama. The bus meandered along until we reached the remote Swedish countryside, and I was reminded of the fictional Hedestad, in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Where were they taking us? We finally arrived at the isolated but idyllic town of Båstad, nestled in the Hallandian Ridge on the shores of the Bay of Laholm. Fortunately it was not the setting for another Nordic Noir crime scene but home to the Swedish Opentennis tournament and EIAS.

The Hotel Skansen oozed Scandinavian style, hospitality and warmth – and the calming music played throughout the hotel was specially prepared by Ecophon to sooth and reenergise us. Likewise the food was selected to keep us healthy, along with the planned outdoor activities, sauna and a tour of the gardens “to satisfy our biophilic urges”.

EIAS is the Ecophon International Acoustics Seminar, but don’t let the word “seminar” fool you as this is the foremost international conference for acousticians – often referred to as the world cup for acousticians as it only takes place every four years or so. A delegate remarked that if the hotel suffered a natural disaster, the acoustics industry would completely vanish – more Nordic Noir thoughts.

I was worried that the content would be heavy going – lots of acoustics geeks sharing their latest equations and techniques for measuring sound and evaluating the acoustic properties of spaces. There was a bit of that, but I was genuinely impressed with the multidisciplinary range of the 42 speakers. In particular, including myself there were three environmental psychologists presenting and a couple of occupational ones to. We joked how you never see an environmental psychologist for ages and then three arrive at once. The delegates referred to us as unicorns – mythical beasts that people had heard of but never seen. We were accompanied by medical practitioners, speech therapists, teachers and physicists. The presentations covered research showing the positive benefits (satisfaction, productivity and quality of life) of good acoustics in offices, schools and medical centres. Click on the speakers’ profiles on the EIAS2015 website to read the speech abstracts.

So returning to my personal acoustic journey. I was briefly trained as an audiologist back in the 1980s and later, whilst at the BRE, I researched noise disturbance in homes. But it was only a year or so ago I turned my attention to psychoacoustics when I was commissioned by Ecophon to conduct a literature review of the subject area. My regular readers will know that I believe “property is a people business” and I am promoting the need to design workplaces to cater for psychological needs.  In the workplace strategy and design community, psychophysics is at the root of everything we do – it is our bridge, the one between people and workplace design.

Psychoacoustics is a branch of psychophysics, so my skill set and active interests matched the needs of Ecophon. “Psychoacoustics is the scientific study of sound perception. More specifically, it is the branch of science studying the psychological and physiological responses associated with sound (including speech and music)”[1]. More succinctly put, psychoacoustics is the study of how people perceive, interpret and react to sound. Noise perception starts with the human brain processing the air pressure waves hitting the ear drum and converting this into perceived sound, and continues with the brain organising and interpreting the sound and applying meaning to it (cognition).

My initial research, the literature review, highlighted that “noise is unwanted sound” and furthermore that sound level only accounts for around 25% of the effect on noise dissatisfaction – the remaining 75% being due to psychological and other factors. The crux of the matter is that the noise is totally subjective and based on a range of factors: task and work activity, context and attitude, perceived control and predictability, and personality and mood. I wasn’t sure how the acoustics community would respond to my view that physics only account for small part of the noise problem we face, but they were more than receptive and the discussions are continuing. Download the full report here or watch the highlights of the research here on the Acoustics Bulletin channel.

The literature review was the start of my acoustics research journey. The second stage was to conduct an on-line survey to verify the hypotheses highlighted in the literature review. It’s a long way to Båstad so I presented the survey results on the second day of the conference. Most of the hypotheses were supported; in particular we found that personality affects noise perception in the workplace quite differently. But there were a few unexpected results, download the report here to find out more. The next stage of the research is to develop a new tool for resolving noise distraction in the office.

I really enjoyed the conference and the Swedish hospitality, and was a little saddened when it all ended. But I met new people, learned lots about noise and have visited a place I would never have gone to without an invite to this elite and elusive conference. At the conference we learned about sandscaping – masking noise with natural sounds or using succh sounds to calm and renergise us. Prior to the conference we were asked what our favourite sound is. Mine is now the sound of waves gently lapping on an isolated Nordic shore, what is yours?

[1] Lauring J O (2013) An Introduction to Neuroaesthetics: The Neuroscientific Approach to Aesthetic Experience, Artistic Creativity, and Arts Appreciation. Museum Tusculanum Press.



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