July 28, 2016
By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D., “Dr. Julia”
Science Director, Focus@Will labs
Summary: This is part two of a series of posts examining how the focus tool Focus@Will works, based on a recent series of experiments. In part one, I explored self-reported focus and described the evidence that the “focused feeling” you get with Focus@Will is actually real. In this part, I describe the importance of task persistence and explain how Focus@Will supports persistence without reducing executive function.
Have an essay to write? Some code to build? A bunch of data analyses that are hanging over your head? In addition to the knowledge and skill required to perform these tasks, in order to actually complete them you need to be persistent. All sorts of glitches will come up during the process, and many distractions can be found in our work environments. So task persistence – the desire to stay on target with one task despite the temptations to switch the task to another one – is a critical ingredient in your getting-work-done recipe.
However, here’s the thing. If you are super-persistent to the point of reducing your attention ability, you could be fighting a losing battle. In other words, if you’re so focused on writing your computer code that you can’t see a fire has started in the cubicle next to yours, that’s bad. Your executive function ability, which is what allows you to pay attention to everything that matters as you go about completing your task, needs to be in tip-top shape even as you maintain your task persistence.
We wanted to know how Focus@Will, the scientifically-designed background audio service, influences both task persistence and executive function. As we mentioned previously, about 300 new Focus@Will subscribers did an extended series of experiments that allowed us to examine these questions. About half of these 300 listened to music while they did a bunch of tasks we set out for them, the other half listened to their favorite Focus@Will channel. Then they did everything again – those who listened to Focus@Will the first time now listened to music, and vice versa.
The two tasks we were looking at to address these task persistence and executive function questions were the dimensional change task (Zelazo, 2006) and the arrow flanker task (Eriksen & Eriksen, 1974). It seems to me (and this assumption should eventually be verified by others) that the dimensional change task can be thought of as measuring task persistence. I’ll explain. The dimensional change task asks you to sort images of animals by either shape or color – what matters in terms of task persistence how often you keep sorting by one dimension (let’s say shape) after there has been a shift from the previous dimension (color). Meanwhile, the arrow flanker task measures the visual attention component of executive function by examining the speed at which you can correctly respond to the question “which direction is the central arrows in a group of arrows pointing?” even when the central arrow is facing a different direction from the surrounding arrows.
….drumroll please? The results show that when people listened to Focus@Will while they were doing these two tasks, there was a significant increase in task persistence as compared to when the same people listened to their own music (see figure). Also, there was no effect on executive function (or at least visual attention) – performance on the arrow flanker task was very good regardless of the background audio. Further, the “persistence score” calculated from the dimensional change task data takes into account performance on the non-switch trials – what this means is that in order to get a good persistence score, people have to correctly perform the non-switching trials and incorrectly perform the switching trials, demonstrating that they can do each of the tasks alone, but they are not prone to change tasks mid-stream (see graph).
These results suggest that one of the ways Focus@Will is making people feel more focused is by improving their task persistence while not affecting their executive function. How is it doing this? My working hypothesis is that putting yourself in a consistent sensory state like Focus@Will does makes you more likely to be motivated toward continuing the same task. In other words, if I switch from classical music to rock, I am likely to switch tasks. But Focus@Will keeps very tight control on the changes made from track to track in its audio channels, so there is very little disruption.
NOTE: While writing this blog post, I kept focused on my work via the scientifically designed and particularly groovy Uptempo audio channel, one of many such channels created by Focus@Will labs.
About Julia Mossbridge:
I am a parent of a 16-year old composer and a partner to a wonderful human being. I give talks about work engagement, authenticity, and aliveness. I am working on changing the culture of Silicon Valley to move it toward a greater appreciation of the gifts of being human (watch a video of me giving an hour-long talk on this topic). I am the author of Unfolding: The Science of Your Soul’s Work, and my upcoming book co-authored with Imants Baruss, Transcendent Mind: Re-thinking the Science of Consciousness, will be released by the American Psychological Association in August 2016. I am also the Science Director at Focus@Will Labs, Director of the Innovation Lab and a Staff Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a Visiting Scholar in Psychology at Northwestern University.
Zelazo, P. D. (2006). The Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS): A method of assessing executive function in children. NATURE PROTOCOLS-ELECTRONIC EDITION, 1(1), 297.
Eriksen, B. A., & Eriksen, C. W. (1974). Effects of noise letters upon the identification of a target letter in a nonsearch task. Perception & psychophysics, 16(1), 143-149.