If it feels like your attention span is getting shorter and shorter with every new iPhone release and Netflix drop, you’re not wrong. Toss in an international pandemic, and most of our ability to focus is out the window completely.
Neurologists have found that we can maintain focus for about 20-minute intervals at best. So while we shouldn’t feel guilty about our wandering minds, we’re also not opposed to seeking out new strategies to help us focus for longer periods of time. Thankfully, neuroscientists have discovered a way to extend our focus, and surprisingly, it has everything to do with sound.
These burgeoning fields of neuroscience and psychology, called auditory neuroscience and psychoacoustics, study how our perception of sound affects the brain, our thoughts, and feelings. And these new scientific fields have spawned the development of something called “streamlined music,” which is thought to help improve cognitive functions, i.e., the way we think, process, and yes, focus.
The Science of Staying Focused
Neuroscientists have extensively studied how our brains take in external stimuli, process it, and focus on a single thing, blocking out everything else. When we’re able to focus on something with laser-like, narrowed concentration, that’s called selective attention.
The process for selective attention is complicated, so I’ll spare you the endless jargon and focus on this one word: norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is a neurochemical transmitter that works as a stimulant— it’s released from your brain stem (at the base of your brain) when you take in external stimuli, and it acts on your decision-making faculties. Basically, it helps your brain decide what to pay attention to, as it’s part of our arousal response of fight, flight, or freeze. For example, if you encounter something dangerous, norepinephrine tells you to pay attention to it.
The neocortex (or frontal lobes of your brain) is also incredibly important for focusing. While the brainstem plays a role in selective attention, the neocortex regulates something called executive attention. Executive attention calls the shots; it can override the selective attention of the brainstem and decides what to pay attention to, and what to ignore.
The last piece of the pay-attention puzzle is habituation, which is when you adjust to your surroundings until they no longer distract you. So, when you’re working from home, and your kids are playing video games, and your partner is listening to NPR, and your dog is barking at the neighbor’s cat— at first, all of this is hugely distracting. But after 20 minutes or so, you might start to drown them out, and they become background chatter. That’s habituation.
When you’re focused and efficient, then all these aspects of attention are working for you. But, at some point you’re going to get bored — remember, we can only maintain focus for about 20 minutes. Your mind will begin to wander, and when this happens, it’s called goal habituation, which means that you’re no longer interested in what you were doing (old goal), and now you want to do something else (new goal). This is when attention and focus can fall apart. If it’s not the noise and clamor of other people in the house distracting you from the task at hand, it’s your own brain, looking for something novel to pay attention to.
We need novelty. Every 20 minutes or so, we need something fresh to engage us, so that our minds don’t trail off into rabbit holes of Pinterest or YouTube videos or Amazon shopping. This is how sound helps.
The Right Sounds Can Help You Stay on Task
Neuroscientists are still studying how and why sound affects mood and our ability to focus, and they’ve found that people who listen to music while they work are more productive and happier. So like DJs in lab coats, neuroscientists have started playing with beats. Monaural and Binaural beats, to be precise.
Specifically, neuroscientists are interested in how we perceive these two types of beats. We can hear a monaural beat with one ear, but we can only hear binaural beats when we listen with both ears.
Beats are measured in frequencies. With a monaural beat, you have two frequencies being played together that the ears are hearing, but as the ears perceive the sound, the sounds either cancel each other out, or they amplify each other. With binaural beats, one frequency is played into one ear, and a different frequency is played into the other ear; from this combination of frequencies, your brain perceives a third sound. That third sound is what makes binaural beats intriguing because no one knows what makes it.
What they do know about binaural beats is that after listening to these sounds for a while, different areas of the brain that were pulsing at different frequencies begin to pulse in synchrony. While the evidence is far from conclusive just yet, this synchronization of disparate parts of the brain could be the reason people are better able to focus.
Participants in experimental studies have been found to have positive reactions while listening to binaural beats, like a slower heartbeat, feeling calmer, and improved focus. According to a study from the University of Southern Denmark, “there is also cumulating evidence suggesting that listening to binaural beats may increase sustained attention.”
To test this out, I played binaural beats as I worked on this article. YouTube is flooded with them— here’s one, if you want to listen. And though I can’t say for certain what helped me focus, I enjoyed the calming tunes and felt more focused overall.
If the number of binaural beats videos on YouTube is any indication of popularity, then it’s no surprise that all sorts of apps offering binaural beats are popping up, including one called Focus@will.
Focus@will has taken binaural beats and the idea of streamline music to create customized beats for its customers, and reports that customers are experiencing “decreased self-awareness, timelessness, and motivation known as ‘flow.’” Sounds good to me.
The company claims that their beats can help you maintain focus for up to 100 minutes straight! And a study they did (which of course, take with a massive grain of salt, because any study done by a company selling a product could demonstrate bias) showed that their clients improved focus by 200-400%. They also tout a pretty solid fan base singing their praises.
To be fair, there are dissenting voices out there that say binaural beats are just a bunch of hype. These writers refer to the sounds as “auditory illusions.” They report that people are being tricked into thinking that they are hearing something they’re actually not and that the beats have no proven benefit. Is it a placebo effect? Maybe. But if you think it helps you focus, then isn’t it helping you focus?
But the bottom line is this; the right sounds can potentially do wonders for your concentration and productivity. Will it work? Try it. At worst, you’ll be relaxed. Which doesn’t sound half-bad right now.
Tamara Jefferies MA is a freelance wellness writer and holistic counselor/coach based in Long Beach, CA. She has worked in the wellness field since 2005 and holds a Master’s in Somatic Psychology from John F. Kennedy University, several certifications in the specialization of trauma and trauma resolution, and is a certified yoga teacher and holistic practitioner offering transformational counseling to women.
Writing on topics that help women heal, grow, and live fulfilled and happy lives is her passion as is writing for wellness businesses, publications, and brands. She is a regular contributing writer to the wellness brand, The Candidly, and a Brand Ambassador to ADORAtherapy.
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