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Does music facilitate or impair cognitive task performance? It depends…

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Does Music Boost Your Cog­ni­tive Per­for­mance? (Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can):

Music makes life bet­ter in so many ways. It ele­vates mood, reduces stress and eas­es pain. Music is heart-healthy, because it can low­er blood pres­sure, reduce heart rate and decrease stress hor­mones in the blood. It also con­nects us with oth­ers and enhances social bonds. Music can even improve work­out endurance and increase our enjoy­ment of chal­leng­ing activ­i­ties … But is lis­ten­ing to music the smart choice for stu­dents who want to opti­mize their learn­ing?

A new study by Manuel Gon­za­lez of Baruch Col­lege and John Aiel­lo of Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty sug­gests that for some stu­dents, lis­ten­ing to music is indeed a wise strat­e­gy, but for oth­ers, it is not. The effect of music on cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing appears not to be “one-size-fits-all” but to instead depend, in part, on your personality—specifically, on your need for exter­nal stim­u­la­tion. Peo­ple with a high require­ment for such stim­u­la­tion tend to get bored eas­i­ly and to seek out exter­nal input. Those indi­vid­u­als often do worse, para­dox­i­cal­ly, when lis­ten­ing to music while engag­ing in a men­tal task. Peo­ple with a low need for exter­nal stim­u­la­tion, on the oth­er hand, tend to improve their men­tal per­for­mance with music … Before stu­dents decide to slip in their ear­buds, though, they should care­ful­ly con­sid­er both their musi­cal selec­tion and the nature of the task.”

The Study:

More than meets the ear: Inves­ti­gat­ing how music affects cog­ni­tive task per­for­mance (Jour­nal of Exper­i­men­tal Psy­chol­o­gy: Applied)

  • From the abstract: Researchers have doc­u­ment­ed var­i­ous (some­times con­flict­ing) effects of music on cog­ni­tive task per­for­mance, and have high­light­ed sev­er­al mech­a­nisms through which these effects may occur (e.g., arousal, mood, atten­tion). To fur­ther under­stand these effects, we con­sid­er inter­ac­tions between music-based, task-based, and per­former-based char­ac­ter­is­tics. Specif­i­cal­ly, we drew from the dis­trac­tion-con­flict the­o­ry of social facil­i­ta­tion and research on bore­dom prone­ness to hypoth­e­size that music—along with its com­plex­i­ty and volume—facilitates sim­ple task per­for­mance and impairs com­plex task per­for­mance, and that one’s pref­er­ence for exter­nal stim­u­la­tion (a dimen­sion of bore­dom prone­ness) mod­er­ates these effects. We test­ed our hypothe­ses in a lab­o­ra­to­ry exper­i­ment, in which par­tic­i­pants com­plet­ed cog­ni­tive tasks either in silence or with music of vary­ing com­plex­i­ty and vol­ume. We found that (1) music gen­er­al­ly impaired com­plex task per­for­mance, (2) com­plex music facil­i­tat­ed sim­ple task per­for­mance, and (3) pref­er­ence for exter­nal stim­u­la­tion mod­er­at­ed these effects. There­fore, the data sug­gest that music’s effects on task per­for­mance depend on the music, the task, and the per­former [empha­sis added]. 

The Study in Context:

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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