Fending off siblings, parents and/or housemates, you claim your rightful spot at the end of the dining room table in the comfortable chair where the light doesn’t shine in your eyes. You settle down for the day and surround yourself with books with more words than you’ve read in your life. You’ve got KitKats and tea and you’re ready to work.
Next thing you know it’s 8pm, your Snapchat score has increased by 136 and the rest of your day was apparently lost to a dangerous cocktail of Facebook scrolling and Buzzfeed recommended articles. It happens to the best of us. Here’s how you can work more productively, and the science to back it up.
Step 1: kill the music. “But I work better with music!” cry the tens of students that read the Science section of Nouse. No you don’t. Studies show that both memory and cognitive ability are negatively affected by working with music.
Smith and Morris (1997) studied the effects of sedative and stimulative music on cognitive processing. Participants repeated a set of numbers backwards while listening to either stimulative, sedative, or no music. Participants who listened to sedative music performed better than participants who listened to simulative music and worse than those who listened to no music at all.
Another study, at the University of Wales, found that whether students enjoyed the music or not, having it on while they worked was just as distracting as hearing someone talk. Imagine doing work with your mother constantly nagging on in the background. Now imagine if she had a mute button.
Do you sleep well? Good sleep is essential for cognitive performance, especially memory consolidation. You are less motivated, more easily distracted, and more irritable when you’re sleep deprived or restrict your sleep each night.
Van Dongen et al (2003) found that participants who restricted their sleep to 6 hours a night for two weeks had cognitive performance deficits equal to participants who had not slept at all the previous night, compared to a control group who got 8 hours a night.
It’s no surprise then that a 2006 review found that “sleep quality and quantity are closely related to student learning capacity and academic performance”. The same study also noted, “students of different education levels (from school to university) are chronically sleep deprived or suffer from poor sleep quality”. Hear that? Get some sleep!
Those of you who have been attending university for more than a week will be very aware of caffeine and its mixed consequences. Regardless of the health consequences of consuming your own body mass in coffee and ProPlus during 48 hour library stints – history students, I’m looking at you – is caffeine actually worth its weight in sleep? Scientific literature is a little shaky on this one. A 2010 review literature review found that “caffeine may occasionally have facilitatory or inhibitory effects on memory and learning.”
Perhaps the most important finding was that caffeine facilitates passive learning, like in picking up information from conversations, but has no effect in intentional learning, like studying. Caffeine is however a mild stimulant, and so does have a large improving effect on memory for people who are tired. It’s worth noting that caffeine has a greatest effect about 1 hour after a cuppa, but can keep you awake even eight hours later.
Your brain is greedy. It needs a steady supply of energy, which it consumes in the form of glucose. Long chain sugars like those found in wholemeal bread and dark breakfast cereal will slowly release glucose over the day. Your brain has some other fairly specific requirements as well.
Research from 2003 found that one of the best meals to feed your student brain is… beans on toast. Perfect. Love it or hate it, Marmite is packed with B vitamins, whose brain-boosting powers have been demonstrated in many studies. Eggs provide you with choline to produce acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter for encoding new memories. Yoghurt, seeds and other high-protein foods contain tyrosine, an amino acid which depletes when we are under stress, and can improve alertness and memory.
Aside from specifics, just make sure you eat enough to keep yourself from being hungry. Your body identifies hunger using the hormone ‘ghrelin’, which has also been shown to cause anxiety and depression in mice; not the sort of mindset you want to study with.
Eat. Sleep. Drink coffee. Don’t distract yourself. You knew that all ready. Now you know why.