Can classical music help you concentrate?

Tina Stefanova
Monday 15 June 2015

When thinking about the research in a neuroscience lab, many of you would imagine participants wearing caps with wires coming out in all directions from their heads. Often in close proximity to these tortured souls there will be an evil, most likely short, experimenter trying to read their brain impulses from a screen. Unfortunately, in this scenario, the short guy with big googles will have to be me.

In all honesty, I came to enjoy this role! Learning how to set up and use electroencephalogram (EEG) was initially challenging, but nevertheless fascinating. It still took me some time to learn how to arrange and connect all 72 electrodes and then clean each of them using a toothbrush! What I didn’t know before is that that the recordings from electrodes on the head (face/scalp/ behind ears) could code for a wide range of information. The latter might vary, for instance, from attention and error monitoring to whether the participant is chewing gum during the experiment.

So far, I’ve spent the last month trying to collect data to answer my main question, namely “Does background music influence one’s performance on a cognitive task?”. Since my work is entirely human-based, it helped me realize how crucial communication and trust could be for obtaining reliable results. For example, explaining the experiment and mentally preparing the participants for what is coming up next have been useful in making them relax and forget about the wires on their heads. At some point, many students even ask for a photo with the EEG cap on, so I’m expecting these pictures to replace the selfie trend very soon.

One last thing I’ve noticed during the internship is the importance of feedback for improving one’s performance. On the one hand, the feedback my advisor has been giving me allowed me not only to learn how to work with the EEG apparatus, but also how to interact with participants. Rule number one was that nobody likes when you try to fit on their head a small cap when their actual size was large.  More importantly, however, the feedback with which I provided students during their behavioral tests (everyone had to complete a cognitive task on a computer) significantly enhanced their performance. That is, explanations of the task together with general encouragement helped most people stay motivated during the experiment and score high on the tests.

If my research sounds good to you and you’d like to take part, feel free to get in touch! Otherwise, enjoy your internships.

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Thanks to Vanya, who was kind enough to let me publish this, you can see our testing conditions, EEG apparatus and genuinely happy participants.

 

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