Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Using your laptop during lectures could be a bad idea

On the surface, carrying a laptop or tablet to your lecture seems like a good idea (and if you’re like most other students, you do). They make note-taking infinitely faster. Don’t understand a term your professor used? A quick Google search will give you the answer. Need to work on coursework from another class? A laptop will allow you to do this secretly and gracefully. In a time where you need to be efficient and multi-task in order to be successful, laptops and tablets have become indispensable working tools for students. 

But a recent study done at MIT suggests that your laptop might not exactly be the godsend you think it is. The study – you can read it in full here – found that undergraduates who were allowed unrestricted use of personal computers and tablets during their lectures performed poorer in their exams compared to those that didn’t have that luxury. Here’s what they say (emphasis added):

"The results from our randomized experiment suggest that computer devices have a substantial negative effect on academic performance. Our estimates imply that permitting computers or laptops in a classroom lowers overall exam grades by around one-fifth of a standard deviation."

So why is this? The researchers think there could be a few factors at play. The big one may be distraction – it’s obviously difficult to pay attention to what’s going on in class when you have your e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook all in front of you. Another might just be that a pen and paper is better for note-taking than a laptop is – think about it, it offers you to be more flexible and hands-on with whatever it is you’re writing (especially if your notes involve a lot of graphs, equations, or diagrams) and computers/tablets can sometimes be clunky and unresponsive. A third reason, the researchers say – and I suspect this is a big player too – is that instructors might simply be more interactive with their students when everyone is gazing up at them rather than their laptops. And that extra engagement might pay off in terms of students better understanding and remembering the material. Being able to actively engage with the material during lectures for instance – such as through back-and-forth discussions with the professor – can go a long way in imprinting that information in your memory.

So there are a few lessons to be learned here. If you’re the sort of person who gets distracted easily and find yourself absent-mindedly browsing Facebook or Reddit during a lecture, maybe it’s time to keep your electronics at home. You don’t want those instant-gratification websites sapping up your attention span, especially when you need to be attentive for what could be a two-hour lecture. For those who see the allure of going back to traditional pen and paper again, try it for a week and see how you like it, and take note of how fidgety and distracted you feel versus when you’re on a laptop.

And for those that think their laptop or iPad is an absolute essential for note-taking, put them on airplane mode and close all non-essential applications at the beginning of a lecture so you don’t get tempted to explore the wonders of the interwebs when you get bored. 

Friday, 27 May 2016

Binaural beats for studying: do they really work?

Listening to binaural beats while studying or working seem like a new craze that is easy to dismiss as pseudo-science (this was my first instinct too). YouTube happens to have a sizable collection of free binaural beat audios available (use headphones if you want to sample them) and they usually come along with dubious titles like ‘chakra healing’ and ‘third eye opening’. 

For those who don’t know, a binaural beat is basically an imaginary ‘third’ beat that your brain conjures up when you’re listening to two slightly different tones in both ears. Say you’re listening to a pure tone of 520 Hz in your right ear and a pure tone of 510 Hz in your left ear, the difference in those frequencies (10 Hz) will be perceived as a third beat…even though it doesn’t actually exist. What’s more amazing about this is that humans cannot typically hear frequencies below 20 Hz if they are presented from the outside environment, yet the brain can be tricked into doing so using the binaural beat technique. 


But so what, right? Well, there are some who claim that these audio tracks could actually help you learn and concentrate better, which could be perfect for students. It seems like a relatively risk-free strategy – all you have to do is listen while punching out that essay or going through your notes. The theory behind this? Essentially, listening to binaural beats influences your brain waves which can in turn – theoretically – be used to alter your state of consciousness. For example, if you listen to a binaural beat audio track that elicits a frequency of 7–13 Hz, there will be a response where certain neurons in your brain will also oscillate at the same frequency. And as the 7–13 Hz range correspond to alpha brain waves (waves that you can see on an EEG recording when someone is relaxed), you could theoretically induce relaxation. 


Similarly, if you listen to a binaural track designed for a frequency of 13-27 Hz (beta waves), you could alter your brain waves to promote thinking, problem-solving, and concentration instead. And so on. 

But do they really work?

The theory sounds great, but while the internet is full of claims and anecdotes regarding the effectiveness of binaural beats, they never seem to touch on real empirical evidence related to whether they can actually influence states of consciousness, and whether those changes are significant enough to affect performance. It wasn’t looking too good, so I decided to do my own research. I used Google Scholar to track down relatively recent scientific studies that have tested the effectiveness of binaural auditory beats for study purposes (concentration, memory, learning, and so on). And let’s just say I was surprised.

One 2015 study focused on whether binaural beats can affect working memory capacity (the memory system you use in learning and problem-solving) in college students. The result? Those who listened to 12-minute tracks which induce alpha waves in the brain showed an increase in working memory capacity compared to those who listened to a control track. 

Another study looked at the effects of binaural beats on attention, and found that college students who listened to binaural beats in the beta frequency range (16-24 Hz) had improved attention and performance when they were tested. And in addition to this, they showed an improvement in their mood when compared to the control group.   

The most comprehensive study I could find about binaural beats for study purposes was this 2013 study, which included a relatively large sample size, multiple EEG frequency ranges, randomisation, and was double-blinded. They tested whether binaural beats could improve focus and concentration. However, twenty minutes of listening in the experimental group did not boost performance or induce changes in brain waves. The researchers, however, note that maybe you need to listen over a longer period of time to get the effect you need. 

The verdict

The research on binaural beats is still in its infancy. After having a taste of that research however, I think there’s a few strands of evidence to suggest that yes, binaural beats under some circumstances can act as a study aid. What those circumstances are exactly are yet to be uncovered, though. Your best bet may be to listen to tracks in the alpha, beta, or gamma frequency ranges (like this or this) and continue doing this, say for a few weeks, then ask yourself if you feel any different (placebo effect or not, if it’s able to put you in the zone, I see nothing wrong with it).


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