Headphones can do more than just drown out your coworkers. A study involving active practice and background exposure shows that listening to material related to a task, or just being around it, can improve your skills at that task.
Image via vieux bandit.
The finding comes from a paper in the Journal of Neuroscience, in which a large group was asked to practise a "difficult auditory discrimination task" 360 times per day. After that initial training in the task, the group was split into three sections. One group continued to regularly focus and perform the task, another was asked to do another task but provided with background audio that related to the auditory discrimination, and another group was given an unrelated task and no related audio.
As you might have guessed, the third group performed the worst in a subsequent re-test. But the results were surprising among the other two. The research suggests that practising the assigned task, then switching to another task while keeping a lower-level exposure to the initial task, may have as many benefits as plugging away in pure practice. Wired Science relates it to our favourite memories of childhood music lessons:
Although we currently assume that the only way to improve is to constantly practice – in technical speak, the act of practicing provides a "permissive signal" that allows the accompanying stimulation to "drive learning" – this research demonstrates that we can also improve through mere exposure. Furthermore, our obsession with practice comes with serious drawbacks, since the tedium of practice can prove discouraging for beginners. And so we quit the piano and give up on our reading lessons, because we can't stand the training regimen.
Intriguing stuff, and good reason to consider investing in a good pair of headphones.
How Much Should We Practice? [Wired Science]