By Yvonne Milosevic
Number 1,642 on the list of things the pandemic has deprived us of this past year: our beloved coffee shops. Specifically, the joy of working and socializing in situ accompanied by a steaming cup of (insert favorite coffeehouse beverage here). Something about this environment has inspired a slew of thinkers for centuries, from Voltaire to Benjamin Franklin, to JK Rowling. But there’s more to it than simply experiencing a caffeine rush in a cozy atmosphere.
There’s actually legit science behind the so-called “coffee shop effect.” Researchers have thoughts on why we’re more creative in coffee shops—and say that working from home can’t replicate that spark. So, how does settling in with your laptop at Starbucks have the edge over working from home? The answer lies in two main features of the coffee shop experience.
Noise Level and Crowds
As much as we enjoy that matcha green tea latte, it’s not the caffeine that provides the flint here. Studies show that ambient noise enhances performance on creative tasks, particularly among those who listen to music while they study/work. In a 2012 paper titled, “Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition,” researchers found background noise distracts the brain, thereby promoting abstract processing, which leads to higher creativity.
According to lead researcher Ravi Mehta, the “sweet spot” is 70 decibels—slightly louder than a typical home TV volume. When stitched together, the curated music playlists, whirring espresso machines, barista chatter, and stream of customers create the ideal level of background noise to ignite the imagination.
But what really spurs our creative juices is being surrounded by other people working. “It’s analogous to going to the gym for a workout,” notes Sunkee Lee, assistant professor of organizational theory and strategy at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business.
“One of the biggest things about coffee shops is the social-facilitation effect: you go there, you see other people working and it puts you in a mood where you just naturally start working as well. Just observing them can motivate you to work harder.”
The second feature of coffee shops that allows creativity to ferment is the ever-changing visual stimuli. For the last year and change, many of us have been working from home. Even if you went on a shopping spree to upgrade your home office, there are only so many changes you can make to refresh your surroundings. You’re still stuck staring at the same four walls each day, and creativity withers in a static environment.
Visual stimulation affects people’s creative thinking process, and triggers “convergent creative thinking,” Lee explains.
Visual variety helps in solving a problem that has an optimal solution but requires you to think outside the box. —Sunkee Lee
Coffee shops, on the other hand, offer tons of visual stimuli. “People come and go. The daylight changes. The aromas of coffee and food vary,” says Korydon Smith, a professor of architecture at the University of Buffalo. “While we tend not take conscious notice of these micro-stimuli, and likely don’t overtly choose to work in this location because of them, these activities around us prod our brains to work a bit differently than at home.”
For both cafe shop owners and customers, the post-pandemic era can’t come soon enough. If you can work remotely, mask up and head down to your local coffee shop. This change in visual stimulation might be just the ticket to boost your creativity.