Attention spans and music vs silence: What's the difference?
January 11, 2018 12:41 PM   Subscribe

Is there a difference in the brains or attention spans of people who prefer to have music in the background versus those that prefer silence? Is there a name for this?

For example, I have to have music all the time to concentrate, whether I'm reading, writing, working, cooking, etc. If there's no music, it feels like time is moving through mud and I can't focus. There are certainly kinds of music that fit particular situations or contexts better, such that they're not distracting, but I've been this way for as long as I can remember. And if there's not music, I'm distracted and flighty. My spouse, on the other hand, needs quiet to work, and could not/would not ever listen to music whilst reading/writing/working.

Is there a name for this affinity or aversion? Does this signify my more ADD-ish tendencies because I need some extra piece of my brain occupied to be able to function, or is it just a random variation in preference?
posted by stillmoving to Grab Bag (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Anecdata: my partner, who has ADHD, is like you: he needs music to concentrate on anything. I am on the autism spectrum and I need absolute quiet. But I know people on the spectrum who need more noise, movement, etc. than average in order to function, too.

People on the spectrum are often either hyposensitive (under-sensitive) or hypersensitive (over-sensitive) to sensory stimuli; it varies on an individual basis. And ADHD is associated with sensory processing disorder.

So I've always wondered if it has to do with either executive function or, relatedly, sensory processing. (Of course, you might have EF or sensory issues without having either diagnosis — it's all on a spectrum for neurotypical people, too.)

Anyway, so needing music might be a form of auditory sensory seeking, for people who are hyposensitive to sensory stimuli and thus need more than "usual" in order to self-regulate. Needing silence would be the opposite: hypersensitivity.

Related: sensory diet.
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 1:04 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]

For a slightly contrary experience: I'm diagnosed ADHD and cannot focus on certain tasks that require intense concentration, like studying, if there's music going on in the background. Even reading is difficult because my brain pays more attention to the music than the words. (weekends at my in-laws can be nightmarish because they have the TV on in the background all. the. time.)

The main exceptions are: doing art, once I've worked out what the picture is (the conceptual and sketch stage require silence), and web coding, where I can listen to music if it's bland enough and I don't understand the words, because words or complicated/interesting music drag my attention away. My coding playlist is mostly Japanese boy bands, for that reason: smoothly bland pop in a language I don't understand, which turns into meaningless background noise.
posted by telophase at 1:49 PM on January 11 [3 favorites]

Add me to the diagnosed ADHD and sensory processing issues and can't have music in the background when I concentrate. A twist, however, is that I feel like I'm concentrating better when there's background noise. I'm just wrong. I think that the background noise distracts me from my lack of focus. I'm actually most productive with silence.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 2:14 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]

I'm neuro-typical, but I can't not listen to music when it's on, and I also reflect language in an audio format when I'm reading (that is, I hear the words as I read, which slows me down) -- thus music conflicts with my ability to read anything. Interestingly, when I was writing my doctoral thesis, I sometimes found that I could work well in a busy coffee bar with live music; my theory is that there was So Much going on that I actually had to shut it out, thus concentrating better (avoiding distractions better) than I might at home. But still not my default at all. We rarely have music playing in my house.
posted by acm at 2:25 PM on January 11

Diagnosed ADHD-PI here. I definitely have some auditory sensory processing issues related to my ADHD. The way this manifests for me (with regards to music in the background) is that I find it much easier to focus on a task with some kind of soundscape, but my requirements are pretty specific and vary based on the task.

1) For tasks that need concentration: music that I know very well (or better yet, have memorized.) When I get a new album, I listen to it on repeat multiple times before it can enter my general shuffle.
2) For explicitly high-verbal tasks like writing: instrumental music, nature sounds.
3) When I am trying to prevent distraction from people talking or a television/radio someone else has going: babble track, noise-cancelling headphones.
4) For physical tasks that don't need much concentration (cleaning, folding laundry, knitting rounds of stockinette) or driving under normal conditions: new music that I'm still "learning"

The best way that I have found to describe it is that my brain is full of squirrels. Normally, each of the squirrels wants to do something different, and trying to focus on a task means that I convince some subset of the squirrels to team up and work on the task.

In silence, once I get the task started, I am usually fine, but it can be very tricky to get started. Once I've channeled hyperfocus on something I can work in silence for ages because all the squirrels are teamed up.

In intermittent noise - like a cube farm where people are occasionally and unpredictably talking, taking calls, etc or a situation where I'm working at home and someone is watching TV in another room that I can slightly hear- the other squirrels are CONSTANTLY trying to pull me over to pay attention to every. Other. Thing. but what I want to do.

The music keeps the non-busy squirrels JUST OCCUPIED ENOUGH that the productive squirrels can work, without being so interesting/novel that the productive squirrels get pulled off-task.

Basically, because an ADHD brain is so easily distracted by novel stimuli, listening to music, especially familiar music that you LIKE but that isn't SURPRISING, basically pre-emptively gives that distractible part of your brain something to do, like plopping a kid down in front of the TV so you can take a shower.

I actually will create playlists specifically for certain tasks - like writing - and over time, the playlists themselves will reinforce the productivity. That first song starts rolling and it makes my brain go "oh okay it's story-writing time now, let's think about writing this story."
posted by oblique red at 2:59 PM on January 11 [3 favorites]

ADD, diagnosed as an adult - I tend to get physically jittery if I have to work/concentrate in a silent environment. Podcasts and NPR are my preferred background - I find it easier to semi-ignore talk than to semi-ignore music.
posted by she's not there at 6:23 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]

Like acm, I’m neuro-typical and I can’t ignore western music in the background. So when I need to drown out background noise to concentrate on work, I use Pandora set to Indian classical music. I think this works because I’ve not been trained in the ‘grammar’ of Indian music.
posted by monotreme at 12:09 PM on January 12

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