Monday, July 8, 2013

Music Soothes the Savage Brain

One of the keys to productive writing is to understand the kind of environment that lets you do your best work. I've long understood that I write better with music playing in the background. I thought this was just a quirk of mine, like a preference for cool cloudy days and butterscotch, but it turns out there's science behind it--specifically neuroscience and psychology.

We've talked before about using music to get in the mood of fiction, such as channeling ragtime or Cole Porter to immerse in an historical time period. But here's the twist--using music can help you focus and reach the yearned-for "flow" state while doing ANY task that requires concentration.

Here's the thing: our brains is wired for distractability. While we focus our selective attention on a task, other environmental factors fade into the background. But at some level our senses are constantly scanning the environment for clues to danger. Each time you catch a flicker of light out of the corner of your eye or feel the hair stand up on the back of your neck, you can thank your brain and nervous system for keeping you safe.

This system worked very well for most of human history, keeping us alert to threats and predators so that we could catch our dinner before becoming dinner for something else. But in today's stimuli-rich environment, it's too much. We keep picking up on sensory signals that we no longer need to respond to, pulling our attention away from the task at hand for no good reason.

Here's where music comes in. If you choose the right kind of music (nothing that will make you jump, jive, and wail or send you packing down Memory Lane), you'll occupy the auditory portion of the brain just enough give it something to chew on while you get your task done. According to the research, gentle music that plays at 60 beats per minute is ideal for decreasing neural activity and reaching a relaxed yet alert state. It takes about 20 minutes to reach peak concentration, which then lasts up to 40 minutes before a break is needed.

You can read the science here.

I've been experimenting with a program called focus@will that plays the right kind of music for building concentration. My choice is Classical, but the program also offers Spa, Up Tempo, Alpha Chill, Acoustical, Cinematic, and Ambient channels, none of which I've tried yet.

I've been using focus@will for about three days while plowing through a grueling nonfiction writing project, and I do believe it's helping me concentrate, although I've enjoyed the music so much that I've had to stop four times to write down the title and composer of what I'm listening to, which is obviously a distraction, albeit a pleasant one. According to the research, the best music ambient music is neither particularly liked or disliked, so maybe I'm liking it a little more than I'm supposed to for maximum benefit. I can live with that. If you find a particular musical selection too distracting, you can alert focus@will and banish it forever from your playlist, but I'm actually looking forward to hearing my favorites again.

There's a free three-week trial period, after which the music may be purchased by paid subscription or in free 100-minute chunks, which is ample time for the typical work cycle of 20 minutes ramp-up and 40 minutes deep concentration. I suppose Pandora or your own personal music collection could work as well, but wouldn't be preselected to soothe the frontal cortex and stimulate cognitive function.
And all that jazz.

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