Music, blueberries and exercise – do these study aids work?

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Music, blueberries and exercise – do these study aids work?

Everyone has their own process for studying. Some people like to set up in the library, some like to find a spot in the garden. Still others like to listen to death metal through their headphones. The trick is figuring out what works for you.

You might have heard about some productivity-enhancing study aids. In this article, we’ll have a look at three of these: background sounds, polyphenol-rich foods and exercise.

Background sounds

A plethora of smartphone apps are available to play background noise while you’re working. Many of these apps play white noise, like the crackle of a fireplace or the gentle pitter-patter of rain. Others specifically play nature sounds, like birdsong in a forest or frogs croaking near a gushing waterfall.

Is background noise beneficial for focus and concentration? The general consensus seems to be that background noise with low acoustic variation (i.e. with few changes in pitch, volume or rhythm) is helpful and can drown out distractions in the environment. But noise with high acoustic variation can be distracting and counterproductive.

Are nature sounds particularly helpful? It probably depends on your goal. One study showed that nature sounds improved mood and relaxation [1]. However, the sound of rain (low acoustic variation) did not alter cognitive performance whereas birdsong (high acoustic variation) actually decreased performance.

What about music? Again, it probably depends whether it is drowning out distractions or if it is being the distraction. Interestingly, however, listening to music before a study session or an exam could be helpful; in one study participants who listened to 10 minutes of Mozart before a test performed better than those who listened 10 minutes of relaxation instructions or 10 minutes of silence [2].

The verdict: Sounds with low acoustic variation are more likely to be helpful. If your little brother is messing with his drum kit in the next room, put in some headphones and try playing gentle music or white noise. But be aware of whether the background noise is helpful or distracting, and figure out what works for you.

Blueberries and grapes

An intriguing school of thought is that foods rich in polyphenols, such as blueberries and grapes, are beneficial for cognitive performance.

But are they going to help you study for the HSC? One interesting study recruited university students and assigned them to one of two groups: one group was given placebo, the other was given 600 mg of a polyphenol extract from blueberries and grapes [3]. Fascinatingly, the students given the polyphenol extract showed higher cognitive performance.

There are caveats to be aware of, however. The higher cognitive performance was recorded in a test where students were asked to serially subtract ‘3’ from a random number – not something that you’ll be tested on in the HSC. Also, the dose and type of polyphenols in foods can vary wildly.

The verdict: It would not be wise to rely on dietary modifications to enhance study efficiency. But blueberries and grapes are pretty tasty and they make a convenient snack choice, so why not?


This one is fairly straightforward. Pretty much everyone agrees that exercise is beneficial for study and learning.

Obviously, don’t go spending hours running marathons when you’re meant to be studying. But any kind of sub-maximal activity, like going for a walk or even a bit of housework, can do wonders for your physical and mental health.

An interesting study that emerged from Stanford in 2014 tested the effect of gentle walking on creative thinking [4]. Participants that went for a walk – even if it was indoors on a treadmill – produced a higher number of creative new ideas compared to those that were sitting down. In fact, even participants who went for a walk then sat down had improved creativity, suggesting that sub-maximal exercise has a residual effect on cognition even after the exercise has stopped.

The verdict: A walk or a gentle jog can be a great way to break up your study sessions and give your brain a little boost.


  1. Newbold, J.W., et al., Using Nature-based Soundscapes to Support Task Performance and Mood, in Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2017, Association for Computing Machinery: Denver, Colorado, USA. p. 2802–2809.
  2. Rauscher, F.H., G.L. Shaw, and C.N. Ky, Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 1993. 365(6447): p. 611-611.
  3. Philip, P., et al., Acute Intake of a Grape and Blueberry Polyphenol-Rich Extract Ameliorates Cognitive Performance in Healthy Young Adults During a Sustained Cognitive Effort. Antioxidants (Basel), 2019. 8(12).
  4. Oppezzo, M. and D.L. Schwartz, Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 2014. 40(4): p. 1142-1152.
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