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Does Music Really Improve Your Focus?
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Does Music Really Improve Your Focus?

Walk into any office or a library, you can find plenty of people immersed in their work with a pair headphones adorning their ears. Some say they wear it as a personal 'do not disturb' sign, while others swear that listening to music while working improves their focus. On the other hand, there have been plenty of arguments debunking this, claiming that listening to music actually distract us from the task we are doing. So, the important question here is, does listening to music really improve our focus?

The human attention system

To understand the impact of music on focus, we have to first understand the human attention system. Interestingly, when it comes to human attention system most of our assumptions are wrong. In an influential research paper, Maurizio Corbetta and Gordon L. Shulman pointed out that we have two different attention systems in our brain. Named as the dorsal and ventral attention systems, they are anatomically and functionally distinct from each other. The dorsal attention system enables us to direct our focus towards things we want to concentrate, while the ventral system acts unconsciously shifting attention towards anything our senses pick up that might be important.

The conscious dorsal system is very much straight forward as we can direct it the way we wish. However, the ventral attention system is 'involved in detecting unattended or unexpected stimuli and triggering shifts of attention, often operating faster and linked to emotional processing. This is essentially the reason why 'when you a hear noise when you are alone at home, you are paying attention to it long before you are able to work out what it might have been'. In truth, this second unconscious system is the real culprit in breaking your flow or focus at slightest of the stimuli, like a co-worker's laugh or a creaking chair.

How music affect our attention system

Numerous studies have identified that background music influences human behavior pointing out that music, when played in the background, neutralizes the ventral system's ability to distract us. "It is much like giving small children a new toy to play with while you are trying to get some work done without them disturbing you," says Dean Burnett, neuroscientist and author of The Idiot Brain, in his Guardian blog .

In a study titled 'Effects of background music on the concentration of workers' , authors Rong -Hwa Huang and Yi- Nuo Shih analyzed how background music affected listeners' concentration in attention testing through Randomized Controlled Trial. From the data, they collected from 89 workers with an average age of 24, they concluded that background music influenced listeners' attention as the test takers performance increased.

Additionally, a study by Tram Nguyen and Jessica Graham , states that background music modulates the listener's internal mood and arousal, putting them at optimal levels to enhance memory performance. Costa Karageorghis, one of the world's leading expert on the psychology of music says that "one could think of music as a type of legal performance-enhancing drug".


What kind of music should one listen to stay focused

It was long believed that listening to classical music by musicians like Mozart and Beethoven improves cognition. While there is a popular school of thought that advocate listening to white noise to improve focus. One of the latest trends on this topic is video game music, as it creates an immersive environment but not distract from the task that requires attention and focus.

However, empirical research on this topic provides a different view. Personally, I have tried many different genres of music, as well as some of the specifically curated playlists in Spotify. However, I found my perfect writing music in Ludovico Einaudi's contemporary classical music. Studies suggest that the music you should listen in the background is really down to personal preference. The same study by Rong -Hwa Huang and Yi- Nuo Shih concludes that the influence on background music on workers' attention "has more to do with listener's fondness for the music than the type of music."

We are getting distracted more and more by ever increasing external stimulus, as days go by, it won't be a bad idea to keep a pair of headphones with you all the time.

(Image Credit: Pexels)

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