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Listening to music at work could be messing with your brain function

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A new study has found that when we’re young, we can listen to music and concentrate on remembering information, but as we get older, the music acts as more of a distraction than anything else.
The
link between music at our workplace and cognitive function hasn’t
really been studied much in the past, which is strange when you think
about it, because it’s such a common component of many office
environments. Whether it’s the radio humming ineffectually in the
corner, or a series of tunes being carefully curated by the resident
‘music expert,’ most of us are pretty used to having it around as we
work.
So researchers at the Georgia Institute of
Technology in the US decided to investigate if environmental music is
having an effect on how we work. They gathered a group of young,
university-aged volunteers, and older adults, and asked them to perform a
series of memory tests while sitting in silence, or listening to
music.
The exercise tested their associative memory skills, and
involved being shown a series of faces and names, and being asked
whether the face looked like they belonged to an assigned name. As in,
‘Yeah, he looks like a Don.’ Having done this once, the faces and names
would be run though again a few minutes later, and the participants
would have to remember if the combinations they were now being shown
were the same as they were before.
Sometimes the test
was performed in silence, and other times, while music was playing in
the background. The music would range from something as innocuous as
musical rain to what the researchers described as ‘non-lyrical rock
music’, such as lesser-known songs from Eric Clapton, Jefferson Airplane, and Rush.
(Or, to the university-aged volunteers, ‘Who?’.) While performing the
memory test, the volunteers had to rate how distracting they found each
type of music to be.
The researchers found that, even
though they complained about the music being more distracting than the
silence, the university-aged participants had no problems performing the
memory tests. There was no discernible difference in their results
between the two scenarios. But when it came to the old adults, they
ended up remembering 10 percent fewer names when performing the task to
music, or the musical rain.

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“Despite the fact that all
participants rated music as more distracting to their performance than
silence, only older adults’ associative memory performance was impaired
by music,” The team reports in the journal The Gerontologist. “These results are most consistent with the theory that older adults’
failure to inhibit processing of distracting task-irrelevant
information, in this case background music, contributes to their memory
impairments.”
Two factors could be at play here – the
first is as we grow older, we get progressively worse at focussing our
attention on one thing while tuning out distractions. It’s linked to a
theory known as the ‘cocktail party effect’,
which gets its name from the ability to focus on one conversation while
navigating a sea of concurrent conversations. Research has found that
the ability to filter out background stimuli actually peaks in young
adulthood, and gets worse with age. 
The second factor
is that research has also shown that as we age, our associative memory
declines too, so it’s even harder for older adults to perform the task,
especially when their ability to drown out the music is also sub-par.
The
researchers say research like this is important for those who run
offices and senior living centres to keep in mind. “They should be
mindful of their surroundings. Maybe employees should turn off music
during learning activities or hold them in a quiet room,” said by one of the
team, psychologist Audrey Duarte. 
“Similarly, older adults who struggle to concentrate while meeting with
co-workers at a coffee shop, for example, should schedule meetings in
quieter locations. When people get lost while driving, it’s probably
best to turn off the radio.”

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