Check out the video. It is a short demonstration of the so-called attentional blink. Whenever you try to spot the two letters in the rapid sequence you’ll miss the second one. This effect is so robust that generations of Psychology undergraduates learned about it. And then came music and changed everything.
Test your own attentional blink
Did you see the R in the video? Probably you did, but did you see the C? The full sequence starts at 0:48, the R occurs at 0:50 and the sequence ends at 0:53. As far as I can see each letter is presented for about 130 milliseconds (a typical rate for this sort of experiment).
Z P J E M S B S W P E R X C H W Z H B J P S W E Z S W H B P X J H E B P W Z S
Judging by the youtube comments, of those who did the task properly (14 comments when I checked), only 65% saw the C. This is remarkably close to the average performance during an attentional blink (around 60% or so).
Where does the attentional blink come from?
The idea is that when the C is presented it cannot enter attention because attention is busy with the R. Another theory states that you immediately forget that you’ve seen the C. The R is less vulnerable to rapid forgetting.
What does music do with our attention?
In 2005 Christian Olivers and Sander Nieuwenhuis reported that they could simply abolish this widely known effect by playing a rhythmic tune in the background (unfortunately no more details are given). Try it out yourself. Switch on the radio and play a song with a strong beat. Now try the video again. Can you see both the R and the C? The 16 people in the music condition of Olivers and Nieuwenhuis could. Music actually let them see things which without music were invisible.
It is a bit mysterious why music would have such an effect. The article only speculates that it has something to do with music inducing a more ‘diffuse’ state of mind, greater arousal, or positive mood. I think the answer lies somewhere else. Music, especially songs with a strong beat, change how we perceive the world. On the beat (i.e. when most people would clap to the beat) one pays more attention than off the beat. What music might have done to participants is to restructure attention. Once the R occurs, it is no longer able to dominate attention because people are following the rhythmic attentional structure.
Behind my explanation is the so-called dynamic attending theory. Unfortunately, Olivers and Nieuwenhuis appear not to be familiar with it. Perhaps it is time to include some music cognition lessons in psychology undergraduate classes. After all, a bit of music let’s you see things which otherwise remain hidden to you.
Jones, M., & Boltz, M. (1989). Dynamic attending and responses to time. Psychological Review, 96 (3), 459-491 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.96.3.459
Large, E., & Jones, M. (1999). The dynamics of attending: How people track time-varying events. Psychological Review, 106 (1), 119-159 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.106.1.119
Olivers, C., & Nieuwenhuis, S. (2005). The Beneficial Effect of Concurrent Task-Irrelevant Mental Activity on Temporal Attention Psychological Science, 16 (4), 265-269 DOI: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.01526.x