By Sarah McCarren, RN, MSN, CPNP
Music and the optimization of attention have been a regular debate in my household. I have always known that music (and TV noise) distracts me when I need to focus; especially while writing, memorizing and reading. With my sample-size of one and my Neurologist husband armed with research on the brain’s disability to multi-task, I have made music-free study zones for my children and study skills clients. Just when I thought I had it all figured out, researchers and many students have begun to uncovered evidence that could dispute my theory. Like most things related to the brain and learning (and parenting), a better stance would be, “it depends”.
We all know the “absent-minded” professor type who could be reading while the chair falls out from under them. We are also aware of many people who struggle to hold the average 9 second attention span. There is a constant dance between your exogenous and endogenous attention.
Exogenous attention is stimulated by an external source. We constantly use our senses to scan the environment for safety-sake or maybe just to make sure you aren’t missing anything more exciting.
Endogenous attention is stimulated by an internal source. It is derived from thinking and using attention strategies, both purposefully and subconsciously.
Music serves as an exogenous attention stimulator through our sense of sound. Some people who are reading or writing get their attention pulled-away with many exogenous sounds. The steady sound of music reduces the distractions of a variety of noises that can be extracted from the environment. For others, their endogenous attention is being constantly pulled away by the music.
The most commonly used music for focus is lyric-free, pleasurable and contains frequent, well-defined transitions. Music with lyrics (especially familiar lyrics) often has a negative effect on concentration for most people, shifting attention from exogenous to endogenous. Classical music or streamed music for focus and concentration are easier to keep in the background of attention. Some students who struggle with motivation might do well with familiar, upbeat music like the music played in video games.
Music can serve as a stimulant by increasing the levels of dopamine in the brain. For people with ADHD and possibly depression, music could have a particularly beneficial effect on attention. Music can also have a calming effect. For individuals who are stressed and anxious, calming the mind can open pathways to higher thinking. Lastly, music may serve as a regulator through associations. You hear a certain type of music and associate it with studying, relaxation, exercise or sleep. Another consideration is to try mindful music before studying or during study breaks to stimulate or calm the mind in preparation for higher thinking.
Cognition is the way we obtained knowledge and understanding. It is obtained through thought, experience, and senses and it is processed in different parts of our brain. Music may help our attention by droning out the variety of auditory distractions that occur in our environment. At the same time, music could distract higher levels of thought and decrease access to long term memory. If you are doing mundane homework or a time-consuming project that requires little problem solving and memory access, music will often make the job more enjoyable. If you are trying to understand Shakespeare and relate it to your life in the twenty-first century, music (especially with lyrics) can be distracting.
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