Our senses are constantly inundated with information: the light streaming in the windows, the sight of people passing by on the street, the smells of a cafe, the sounds of conversations and dogs barking over the din of city traffic, the light scrape of a scarf around your neck, the pressure of the hardwood table on your elbows. Each time you notice something in your environment, you are paying attention to it. The ability to focus your attention on something while ignoring competing stimuli is called selective attention by psychologists, and we would never get anything done without it.

Selective attention has been likened to a spotlight that you focus on something, and like a spotlight, the beam can be wide or narrow. Right now, your spotlight is focused on this article, which means that it is probably rather narrow. Other aspects of your environment fade into the background in relation to what is in your attentional spotlight. That is, until something distracting happens in your environment, and refocuses your spotlight.

The question many people want answered is how they can maximize focus so that their environment becomes less distracting and their attentional spotlight is continuously focused on their projects of the day. Auditory neuroscience and psychoacoustics (the psychology of sound perception) can help us answer this question.

When you listen to music, sound waves hit your eardrums, are transferred to the cochlea in your inner ears, where microscopic cells called hair cells vibrate in response to the sound. The movement of the hair cells turns the mechanical energy of the sound wave into chemical signals that stimulate auditory nerves to fire action potentials.

Where does the signal go from there? The auditory pathway takes the encoded action potential signal from the ears to the brainstem cochlear nucleus and gets processed in a bunch of other brainstem locations. Finally, the signal moves to the thalamus and to the primary auditory cortex in the temporal lobe, which sits above your ears on each side of your head.

Here’s the thing. When the signal gets into the brainstem, before it goes to the cortex and you become conscious of the sound, one of the areas that is likely to be activated is a bunch of neurons called the locus coeruleus. The locus coeruleus produces noradrenaline (also called norepinephrine), which is a stimulant for your brain. It sends noradrenaline to many other locations in your brain. The areas targeted by the locus coeruleus are responsible for deciding how you are going to respond to a stimulus, which in this case is music. In effect, by dousing the decision-making parts of your brain with stimulant, the locus coeruleus changes your level of arousal from the bottom-up and influences behavioral responses so that you will be either more or less distractible. [1, 4]

Researchers have suggested that dysregulation of the locus coeruleus likely contributes to many arousal disorders, such as insomnia, anxiety, ADHD, depression, and PTSD [2, 3]. But the response pattern of the locus coeruleus is much more complicated than just “input a stimulus, output arousal.” If that were the case, the majority of us would always be way too stimulated.

We also use a process that psychologists call executive attention. Executive attention manages our attention the way that a teacher manages a classroom. Instead of allowing the students in the class to all talk at once, the teacher determines who gets to talk. Executive attention uses a variety of brain circuits, and is especially dependent on the frontal lobes. So, when you sit down at that table in the cafe to read, your executive attention circuits can send signals to the locus coeruleus telling it to keep quiet, except in the case of an emergency. This top-down control allows you to focus your attention on your book for a sustained period of time, rather than being constantly distracted by everything going on in the cafe. Keeping your executive attention functioning well so you are not distracted is essential for getting into a productive, focused state.

The other key is habituation. Although cafes are full of noises of all sorts, many people find it easier to work in the loud cafe than a quiet library. Some theorists say this is because your brain only has so much processing power for any given sensory modality at a time. The overloading of your auditory senses with stimuli results in a process wherein over a short period of time, usually about 20 minutes or so [9], you get used to the noise. This process is called habituation.

Once you become habituated to your auditory environment, will probably still notice when something unexpected pops up, but the neurons in your brain responsible for helping you sense the stuff in your environment quiet down and let you focus – for a while [7]. The problem with habituating to your auditory environment is that it can no longer be used to soothe you. There is another problem with habituation, and that is you can experience goal habituation. That is, over time, your original goal is not as motivating or exciting, so your brain starts to search for novelty. That can lead to a failure of your executive attention, so now you are not focusing on your data analysis for the meeting, instead you are checking your twitter feed.

So the trick is occupying your brain just enough to let you work, but feeding your brain novel stimuli at just the right times so that you don’t try to seek novelty by distracting yourself. It turns out listening to music while you work can do the trick [26]. Of course, some music is better than others: music that has emotional or sentimental overtones is likely to stimulate your emotional and memory processing, and music that is too fast, variable, or loud will jar your locus coeruleus back into action [10, 12]. In support of the idea that the pitfalls of distraction and habituation need to be straddled for music to be helpful during work, Huang and Shih (2011) found that when choosing music for a workplace, it is best to use music that workers neither like nor dislike [13]. In 2012, the same researchers concluded that music with lyrics is distracting to workers when compared to instrumental music [14]. Cognitive load theory dictates that if a person is attending to a task like reading or writing, which depend on both the visual and auditory cortices, processing power will not be sufficient to ignore distractions in one of the modalities, like speech.

We believe focus@will works by keeping your brain at the right focus level at least in part by increasing beta and theta brainwave activity. Increases in beta waves have been tied to sustained focus and attentional control, and biofeedback technology that specifically increases beta waves has been successfully used to treat attention disorders [35]. Theta waves, in some situations, are also related to task focus (for example, [36]). We have found that when focus@will audio tracks are played during reading, both beta and theta activity are increased, relative to plain music, in areas of the brain related to task focus and preparedness (see our study).

We hear from our users that we help them reach a psychological state of decreased self-awareness, timelessness, and motivation known as “flow”. Songwriters, musicians, writers, athletes, and meditators separately describe similar experiences of flow [15]. We are preparing a series of experiments to examine this flow state in correlation with focus@will music, and we will post results here as soon as they are available.

Once a flow state is reached, how is it maintained, and for how long? We know that it takes approximately 20 minutes to get into a state of concentration in which you are able to habituate to irrelevant external stimuli [9]. Most people are able to maintain their concentration from a minimum of 20 to a maximum of about 40 minutes before having to take a break [16, 17]. Psychologists call this waning of attention the ‘vigilance decrement’, and suggest that it is due to either a reduction in cognitive resources or goal habituation [18]. Some research suggests that a brief break can reduce this goal habituation and enable people to maintain vigilance for longer periods of time [19].

Exactly how long is still in question, but endocrinologists and neuroscientists have described hormone and activity cycles that take place on the order of every 60 to 120 minutes [20, 22, 24, 25]. Based on the understanding that our bodies have natural daily rhythms and that these rhythms are tied to neural activity and cognitive function [22], work sessions could be organized to follow your increases and decreases in hormones, neurotransmitters, and cognitive function. Depending upon your personal daily rhythm, being able to maintain attention during work sessions of 1-2 hours in length is probably optimal.

The entire process of maintaining focus for an extended period of time is not easy. It requires work on the part of your brain and can be considered a source of stress [27]. An area of research devoted to designing technologies that work with your brain to make work less effortful is called neuroergonomics [28, 29, 30]. Neuroergonomic technologies like focus@will can produce experiences that enable your brain to feel less stress while you to get more work done. That said, you still need to be personally motivated to get to work and find your flow [31, 32, 33, 34].

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