Saturday, 19 June 2010

Can music help you concentrate?

It's 70 years to the day that BBC radio introduced a music programme called Music While You Work in a bid to help lift morale and raise productivity among factory workers during WW2. When the first programme was broadcast on Sunday June 23rd 1940, at the British government's suggestion, the choice of music had been studiously researched - plenty of familiar tunes, but nothing too fast and nothing too slow - it was soon popular with domestic listeners, too.

Scroll forward, and research has continued to show that music can aid concentration and productivity, something that might be argued by many students today - currently in the thick of their end of year exams - but are they right?

Research from Stanford University's School of Medicine has shown that music definitely engages areas of the brain involved with paying attention. While other research from Rutgers University in 2006, from a study with maths students, actually identified which type of music was most beneficial: Baroque.

"Music stabilizes mental, physical and emotional rhythms to attain a state of deep concentration and focus in which large amounts of content information can be processed and learned," says Chris Boyd, a proponent of music in learning and health, who runs Life Sounds ( "Baroque music, such as that composed by Bach, Handel or Telemann, that is 50 to 80 beats per minute creates an atmosphere of focus that leads students into deep concentration in the alpha brain wave state. Learning vocabulary, memorizing facts or reading to this music is highly effective. On the other hand, energizing Mozart music assists in holding attention during sleepy times of day and helps students stay alert while reading or working on projects."

I couldn't tell you if Rio Ferdinand is listening to Bach or Mozart, but he might like to give it a go.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

What's posture got to do with it?

You may not think there is an obvious connection between your posture and concentration, but if you are someone who spends long hours sitting at a desk or working on a keyboard (IT or musical), your posture can make a big difference to how long your concentration levels hold.

It's actually very simple.

Bad posture causes poor breathing patterns, restricted circulation, muscular strain and repetitive strain injuries, which can not only sap energy (because negative patterns of muscular use use up more energy than positive ones) but can also cause constant, low-grade physical pain.

But there's lots you can do if you think your posture might be at fault.

Take a look at how you sit - slumped middle, crossed legs, rounded shoulders, craning neck - all of which will create problems in the long term. And if your muscle tone is flabby, you will be relying on tendons and ligaments instead, running the risk of repetitive strain injury (RSI).

Make sure your desk, chair and screen - if you are working at a computer - are at the right height for you. Sit on an exercise ball rather than a chair to help engage your core abdominal muscles while you sit, and prevent you from slouching. Keep feet flat on the floor, hips and knees at right angles.

Exercise to keep those core muscles strong will also help. Pilates is excellent for this, but also other exercise like T'ai Chi and yoga will improve posture. Check in with the posture experts, Alexander Technique teachers, to help correct body mis-alignment and poor posture. If you work with any sort of personal trainer, they should also be eagled-eye about your posture to avoid injury when you exercise.

Freeing up your posture, alleviating the tension in the many muscle groups from shoulders to calves, will also improve blood circulation - which carries oxygen to the brain - keeping those neurons happily energised and your ability to concentrate enhanced.

Do this now and your body and brain will thank you when you're 80!

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Running on empty

He's worth £250 million. He employs 600 people. P Diddy may be ghetto fabulous and an icon of success, but he can't sleep. "If I got more sleep, I'd be a better person, a healthier person, I'd be able to see a bit clearer. It's a problem - and I'm looking for help," he said in a recent interview in the London Times.

"I ain't stressed, it's the reverse. It's because I'm so excited."

Excitement. Stress. Grief. Anxiety. Chronic insomnia. They all have one thing in common: they put the body into 'fight or flight' mode - a state of preparation for coping with an emergency. The body gets flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, hormones designed to get you through an acute crisis not a chronically unbalanced lifestyle. These hormones are meant to heighten physical and mental performance and so they prevent sleep, increase the heart rate, improve muscle power and raise blood pressure - everything you need to fight off an attack from a sabre-toothed tiger, but less than useful every day in the office.

When these hormones are persistently activated they make you feel jittery, tense, nauseous, and in turn - as in P Diddy's case - unable to sleep.

In the longterm, this scenario can lead to adrenal exhaustion - when the adrenal glands, stimulated beyond capability, pack up - and the inevitable physical and mental burnout. This in turn can lead to problems like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), ME (mylagic encephalitis) and other autoimmune disorders like Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Symptoms of adrenal exhaustion include:
- insomnia
- difficulties with concentration and memory
- low-stress intolerance, irritability
- lethargy and fatigue
- light-headedness, especially on standing up
- allergies
- PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome)
- more frequent coughs and colds

But it's not easy to change tack because we can become almost addicted to the sort of high that running on empty can provide. Slowing down feels odd at first. Flat. Not quite right. We can become stress junkies.

P Diddy is wise to be alarmed by his chronic insomnia, but this is only a symptom of a bigger problem. His sleep problem is directly connected to his lifestyle demands, and until he addresses those, sleep won't come easy.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Disaster at the 42nd minute, redemption at the 65th

"He's just dropped his concentration for a split second..." said the match commentator. When it comes to concentration, it's what you do next that will really count.

Was it lack of concentration or nerves for the goalie?

Rob Green, England's goalkeeper, couldn't have felt worse at this moment. His slip resulted in an equalising goal for the US, after Gerrard's great first goal within the first four minutes of the match, bringing the score to 1:1.

But would this slip-up distract Green for the rest of the match?

Apparently not. He managed to regain his composure and his concentration and, at the 65th minute, was redeemed by making a good save.

In the end, he really showed the art of concentration.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Will the noise of the vuvuzela horn affect the footballers’ concentration?

An unusual aspect of the World Cup is the debate surrounding the vuvuzela horn, used by supporters to show their appreciation. It makes a sound like a large bluebottle fly trapped in a jam jar, multiplied many times.

Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso and the Netherlands coach Bert van Marjijk obviously thought it might affect players’ concentration, and ability to communicate with each other, and called for a ban. But this was rejected by FIFA president Sepp Blatter who said, “We should not try to Europeanise the World Cup.”

How far are players, concentrating on their game, affected by external noise anyway? There is considerable evidence to suggest that the sort of ability to concentrate that will take a player to the top of his or her game, will over-ride background noise. They literally don't hear the noise while they're in 'the zone'.

Let’s hope so.

There is also evidence to show that those for whom concentration is difficult, and this includes research done with children with attention deficity hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can benefit from background music, or white noise– a sound containing a blend of all the audible frequencies distributed equally over the range of the frequency band – to counteract or mask other distractions and noises.

It may be that the vuvuzela horn’s noise falls into this white noise category – but it’s very loud!

And irrespective of how loud it is to the players, listening to the TV commentators on the World Cup’s opening match was difficult given the level of background noise from the horn.

No doubt I will get used to it, and I imagine the players will, too – but for the first time, and for this reason alone, I’m quite glad I’m not there in person!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Procrastination is the thief of time

In the 21st Century we've created the perfect environment for procrastination with all the many distractions of our 24/7 lives, and psychologists have characterised this as behaviour that is counterproductive, needless or delaying.

It actually takes energy to procrastinate - dissipating energy that could be better used concentrating on getting the job done.

So why do we do it?

There are a number of reasons: immaturity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain (a characteristic of adolescence), it can also be linked to negative coping strategies that actually undermine our efforts, or lack of self-esteem about tackling a particular task, and even fear of failure. But psychologist and author of It's About Time, Dr Linda Sapadin has identified six procrastination styles, which can be helpful to consider if you feel that your procrastination habit is getting out of hand...

1. Perfectionists - who procrastinate because they want everything to be perfect, including that very first sentence, so will avoid doing anything unless it complies with their - usually unrealistic - aims.

2. Crisis Junkies - who like to leave everything to the last minute because it creates drama in their lives, gets them lots of attention, and actually creates a 'living on the edge' scenario they use to motivate themselves.

3. Dreamers - who tend to procrastinate because they find it all too complicated, and hate dealing with bothersome details, so would rather think about something else.

4. Defiers - who resent and resist doing what they need to do because they are defying some sort of internal, or external, authority figure.

5. Worriers - masters of the 'what if?' scenario, they can't get going because they constantly anticipate the worst and are afraid of change, and this nagging preoccupation stops them from starting.

6. Over-doers - who take on too much, don't know how to organise and prioritise what needs doing, so don't know where to start - then go off and find something else on their long list to do rather than tackle it.

What style of procrastination do you employ to avoid doing something? And why? Once you've identified it, you can work towards counteracting it - or, alternatively, just ignoring your efforts to procrastinate, and employ that same energy to getting it done!