"The Beneficial Effect of Concurrent Task-Irrelevant Mental Activity on Temporal Attention"
This week's paper is very well-known and heavily-cited paper by Dr. Christian N.L. Olivers and Dr. Sander Nieuwenhuis of Vrije Universiteit. I kept seeing it cited in papers I was reading, so I decided to backtrack and read it. I'm glad I did! It's a fairly simple paper, but the results are striking.
Summary: This is another Attentional Blink paper, but with a twist. Olivers and Nieuwenhuis test how music affects the Attentional Blink, both in magnitude and duration. Within the experiment, there are four test groups; a control group, a group that was rewarded for correct answers, a group that was instructed to think of their last vacation while performing the experiment, and a group that listened to music ("a rhythmic tune", as they put it in the paper) while performing the experiment. The subjects performed an RSVP Task (you remember what that is!) with letter distractors and numerical targets, shown in the adjacent figure.
While the group that thought of their last vacation ("free association" in the below figure) did do better than the standard group at recalling T2, the group that listened to music performed the best by far. In fact, the Attentional Blink was essentially absent in that group. There was no significant difference between the group that was rewarded and the control group, however.
The obvious question that the authors address is "Why does this happen?". Of course, there's no easy answer. The authors, however, theorize that music may diminish the Attentional Blink by creating a more distributed state of attention. I'll explain this more below.
The Take-Away: Listening to music while performing an RSVP task diminishes the Attentional Blink phenomenon.
My Thoughts: So by now you're probably wondering, "What's up with that attention thing you said in the summary?". Well, it's a little complicated. I've encountered a theory about the Attentional Blink in more than a few papers that states that it may be the result of an over-exertion of attentional resources upon the first target (T1). This over-exertion would theoretically leave too few resources to fully attend to and process the second target (T2), creating the deficit in T2 identification.
What the authors are saying is that music may allow a subject to adopt a more distributed state of attention, preventing the overexertion of attentional resources explained above. This leads to the Attentional Blink nearly disappearing, as we see in this experiment.
I'd like to see the experiment recreated with varying levels of music intricacy (if you could quantify that). I wonder if some music may be too attention-grabbing to create the distributed state of attention. I'm sure there's a paper testing that; I'll go searching for it now.