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What do your music preferences say about your study habits?

13 June 2017
Instrumental music may be the answer to more effective study

With exams looming and study sessions stepping up we asked our resident mnemonic expert Professor David Alais to investigate how your study playlist can improve motivation levels, boost learning and increase memory encoding.

The ‘Mozart Effect’ is a long discussed hypothesis that suggests by listening to Mozart’s music you can perform better at different mental tasks. Professor Alais from the University of Sydney School of Psychology believes there might be some truth in that.

Music improves motivation

It’s well known that certain human behaviours such as eating, having sex or shared social moments lead to a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

“Dopamine is a very common neurotransmitter, sometimes called a feel-good neurochemical. More accurately, it is released in response to a rewarding activity, and its presence helps drive our motivation and reinforces the activity that led to its release,” says Professor Alais.

Now music can be added to the list, since it’s been found that listening to emotionally engaging melodies also results in the release of dopamine – one of few intangible practices to do this.

Prof Alais discussed a behavioural study on rats to demonstrate the relationship between dopamine and motivation.

“Given two pathways to find a food reward, rats with high dopamine levels took the effortful path to receive twice the amount of food, while those with low levels took the easy path and received less food,” he says.

So, how does this relate to studying?

“When you are sitting down to study, boosting dopamine through music is good because it will increase your motivation levels. The satisfaction you feel when reaching your study goals will be intrinsically rewarding and reinforce your willingness to study,” Prof Alais explains.

“For the maximum dopamine boost, you should choose music that gives you a positive emotional response,” he suggests. “People who are happy and less stressed are going to feel better and therefore learn better.”

Certain music can boost memory

In neuroscience there are several networks in the brain including the executive attention network and the default mode network, the latter being more active when you are calm and inwardly focused.

“In this reflective state you are more likely to imagine and visualise things; you can find connections between information and memories. You are less focused on logical sequences and instead on broader associative connections that can help you encode things in a richer network.”

And visualisation is apparently the best way to memorise things. 

“The imagination is a powerful tool and it’s one that we don’t use enough.”

Alais gives the example of how famous Roman orators from times before cue cards harnessed the power of visualisation to recite their extraordinarily lengthy public speeches utilising the default mode network of their brain.

“They would model the sequence of their speech off their house which they knew backwards. They would use this to create an order for their talk and in each room of the house they would mentally input a couple of object cues,” Prof Alais explains.

“They only had to remember the sequence of their speech in global terms (e.g. the route they would take to walk around their house) and the rest of the information would flow on from there.”

“The imagination is a powerful tool and it’s one that we don’t use enough.”

In order to reach this part of the brain Alais suggests we need to remove extraneous stimuli.

“In order to switch off your externally focused frontal lobe and achieve a more reflective headspace you can meditate, practice mindfulness, take a walk or listen to calming, ambient music.”

Music with lyrics and complex technical sequences is more distracting, making it harder to reach this reflective inner state as you will be focused on outside factors.

“You can’t ignore someone speaking to you, even through song; so often the logical part of your brain that you’re trying to use when you’re studying is conflicted. You’re detracting from your focus.”

Alais suggests avoiding music with lyrics or that compels you to move physically, “choose music that flows over you rather than grabbing you.”

Work over twerk, if you will.

Tunes can be even more distracting if you have a background in music, something Professor Alais can attest to having worked for six years as a live sound engineer while an undergraduate and PhD student.

“If you are musically trained, you are probably a very analytical listener. You will likely engage more with the music and analyse the rhythm, key, chord changes, instrumentation etc. Something ambient may be better for you to reach that inner default mode network. Or perhaps a genre that is outside your area of expertise.”

What about personality and music preference?

Only a small amount of research exists, but what’s there suggests people can be broadly categorised into three types: empathisers, systemisers and those considered a little bit of both.

Empathisers were found to enjoy pop music because it speaks to the emotions with lyrics and in using rhythm and beat to convey mood. This type of person enjoys the global effect of the music rather than isolating aspects of it. A systemiser, meanwhile, will be more scientific in approach and therefore enjoy complex forms of music like jazz or electronica which requires some effort to decode it.

So as you settle in for another study session, give an extra thought to the tunes you choose because it’s proven that listening to certain music can indeed help you out come exam time. For Professor Alais nothing beats the Bach cello suites.