Number 34 in our countdown of '70 Ways Art Improves Our Health' highlights how music can help develop better focus and self-control for people with ADHD…

Managing ADHD often includes a mixture of medication, talking therapies, and changes at home, at school or at work. There are many other recommendations from lots of different sources, including: getting more exercise, regulating sleep patterns, eating better, and taking regular breaks. Everyone is different and everyone finds their own way of managing.

However, one popular recommendation, to limit distractions, may not be as straightforward as it seems. When someone with ADHD is struggling to focus on a task like school homework, we may be tempted to remove all distractions to the point of sitting in silence. Evidence suggests that this may be the wrong move.

We know that people with ADHD tend to have lower levels of the brain chemical dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (a messenger chemical) that helps to control our brain’s reward and pleasure centres. It enables us not only to recognise rewards, but to take action toward them. The main reason that prescribed stimulants, such as Ritalin, are believed to help improve ADHD symptoms is because they increase dopamine levels.

Nothing activates the brain so extensively as music

Oliver Sacks, neurologist

But guess what…music also has the ability to increase our levels of dopamine: as demonstrated in a 2011 study. And it could be this trait that explains music’s ability to alter our mood and emotions.

Increased production of dopamine will help a person with ADHD focus and study more effectively. This was demonstrated in another study from 2011 which found that some children with ADHD benefited by listening to music while doing their homework.

Music can also offer other benefits in that it provides rhythm (it can speed us up or slow us down) and structure (a clear beginning, middle and end). Then there is the widely reported Mozart Effect, which suggests that listening to certain music improves our spatial-temporal reasoning (mentally moving objects through space or time to solve problems).

Some music may work better for certain tasks and for certain people. Again, everyone is different. For people with ADHD, it is worth taking the time to experiment and find the type of music that helps them focus best.

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