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Can this music app boost your brain power? Neuroscientists aren't so sure

Jessica Lipsky | Oct. 9, 2013
Focus@will claims that its music playlists make users more productive and increase attention span by 400 percent with long-term use.

Change of habit
Vivienne Ming, theoretical neuroscientist and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, takes a harder line on the scientific basis for Focus@will's claims. Our brains consistently pay attention to music on some level and often predict the next movement or beat, she says, citing research by Stanford professor Vinod Menon.

"[The brain is] going to spend a certain amount of attention paying attention to our music, regardless. One shouldn't think that there's a kind of music that can allow us to disengage," Ming says. "I think that the basic story that you can pick background music, which is not necessarily distracting, is fine, but their particular story that this specific selection of music has certain meter and rhythm, that is in certain keys that they use to target transitions to maximize workplace attention ... I'm very skeptical."

Ming points out that there is little evidence to support the notion that music enhances the brain's slow state or theta waves, which are often associated with creativity. In fact, research suggests that optimal engagement occurs in transitional states between habituation, according to Ming.

"It turns out, our maximum attention, awareness, and focus comes in transition moments. When the music starts and stops and there's nothing to predict, our brain becomes incredibly attuned to the environment," Ming says. "It's extremely difficult for me to imagine how a specifically chosen direction of music would enhance our ability to lock on to something else."

Were she to design a similar concentration application, Ming says, she would allow for pauses with no music so that users could relax, become more aware of their surroundings, and then deeply reengage. Additionally, she says that the idea of habituation as defined by Focus@will developers is a shaky notion.

"Our brains don't just follow a rhythm, but they're using essential resources that need to be replenished," she says. "Focus is highly dependent on what people are doing. You can think of focus or attention as a limited resource, as a fuel. To really work hard at marking a decision, you are literally using up energy."

Habituation or any fundamental attention cycle is dependent on the activity being accomplished, Ming explains. If the activity is extremely challenging, the period to habituation will be much shorter, while easier tasks will have a longer period before habituation is reached.

"I think that the idea that you can design music to be very much in the background so that you're minimizing the degree to which it's drawing on the cognitive resources of the listeners can help," Ming says. "But I'm a bit skeptical of the possibility of being able to create more-engaged workers through specifically chosen music beyond the basics of not playing flashy, noisy music."


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