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“The ears are being underutilised,” neuroscientist Dr Julia Jones tells the Leaders Performance Institute over Zoom, in September. “It is established fact that the latest neuroscience insights and technology can result in better performance, faster recovery and less injury. The key to achieving those three outcomes is getting in the driving seat of your brain so that you’re fully in control of sympathetic nervous system cascades and parasympathetic tone.
“Auditory stimuli,” she continues, “any sounds – voice, nature, tones or music – are highly effective cues that can be utilised in various ways to quickly help an athlete or any regular person to get in the driving seat of their brain and stay there. These auditory cues are a highly effective tool because of the brain responses they trigger but also because of their versatility and ease of use.
“The neuroscience is all there but it’s not being fully harnessed in sport yet. Sound should be given the same level of sophisticated detailed attention and analysis as nutrition. Every sound that enters the ears and contacts the skin is triggering electrochemical responses in the brain and body that impact performance. Even sounds that you just produce yourself internally, by imagining sounds or humming sounds, have these effects.”
However, Jones feels that sport is only accessing a tiny fraction of the full potential of sound. She says: “Most athletes and coaches are using playlists but, in many cases, their choices are not based on scientific analysis and they are not marrying audio with vision and breathing hacks to produce super-fast neurobiological responses that are required for that moment.
“It will be like having a nutritionist for the ears. However, ignoring the full potential of sound by just using ‘playlists’ is akin to advising athletes on their breakfast while ignoring the rest of their daily food and drink intake.”
Earlier this year, Jones, also known as Dr Rock, co-founded Jones Long Partners [JLP] with business development specialist Simon Long, who joins us on the call. “Consider the postponement of the Tokyo Games,” he says. “High performance athletes have worked towards a peak but been told they cannot compete. It has a huge impact on mental health and performance levels.” Long is speaking just days before coronavirus outbreaks forced the NFL to postpone the New England Patriots’ visit to the Kansas City Chiefs and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ trip to the Tennessee Titans. “We are able to help athletes to be at their best even if they’re not competing.”
From business and elite sport to public administration and dementia patients, JLP supports a range of clients through its neuroscience-based multi-sensory strategies. “We show people how to apply the science of sound at a very highly sophisticated level to maximise results. Athletes who start to embed this neuroscience into their daily routines will have a competitive advantage over those who do not.”
Nutrition for the ears
The two-time men’s 10,000m Olympic champion Haile Gebrselassie famously used the 1995 hit Scatman by Scatman John to help him set world-beating times. “You know that Scatman music was perfect for the 10,000m world record,” the Ethiopian told the Guardian in 2013. “If you watch back some of my world records you can hear Scatman in the background. The rhythm was perfect for running.”
At the time when Gebrselassie was setting world records, Jones was combining her work as a junior tennis coach with being in a band and working as a DJ. Her creative pursuits quickly spilled into her day job. “I was waiting for the kids to arrive I’d be listening to music, as I’d be learning the songs for gigs,” she recalls. “Then I started leaving the music playing, incorporating it into warm-ups and then drills by synchronising the movement to the time of the rhythms and, before you knew it, I had tonnes of clients.
Jones later became a sport & exercise psychologist and worked with British athletes in the build-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. “I would explain how to use music to control anxiety,” she says. “If you take swimming as an example, you have to give up your life, be in the pool at the crack of dawn, be in the gym after school and not have the same social life as your friends. It’s relentless and both the strain and the pressure at such a young age are immense.
“A lot of the work I was doing at the time was in how to control anxiety and using music to try and cope with fluctuations in mood. Some of these young athletes had guilt around the fact their parents were investing so much money and time in taking them on this journey in sport. They found they weren’t enjoying it and didn’t want to do it.”
Why is music such a powerful tool in this process? “It is an evolutionary mechanism,” replies Jones. “The brain processes sound in a certain way. It’s our brain’s job to keep us alive and it does that by taking sensory information. When it comes to sound, loud, sudden sounds are potentially dangerous, so they increase our arousal because we would have to run for our life or fight to stay alive. By contrast, the sounds of a relaxed environment, which tend to be quieter, relax our autonomic nervous system; our arousal decreases.
“Music is designed to play with those evolutionary mechanisms; loud, fast, up tempo music increases heartrate, increases activity in our brains, activates the release of brain chemicals to increase alertness. Slow, relaxing sounds do the opposite. At a very basic level it’s about using music or sounds of different types to be in the desired placed on the arousal scale.”
Jones cites August’s FA Cup final, when eventual winners Arsenal took on Chelsea at Wembley Stadium. “I watched the tunnel cam footage because that’s how boring I am!” she says with a smile. “I was sitting watching people walk in. It was a very clinical environment; silent and sterile.” Jones noted that while most of the Arsenal squad sported headphones, she was struck by the lack on the ears of their west London opponents. “Sometimes you don’t have control over it but sometimes you do. If you’re wearing headphones you can dictate not only what you’re putting in but you’re also blocking everything else.”
Not that she believes either team necessarily enjoyed optimal auditory input, as neither had control over the music played over the stadium’s PA system during the warm-up. “That music is being processed by the brain but it’s not music that’s been selected by any of those players and it wouldn’t have been a decision made in consultation with the coaches and psychologists of either team,” she says.
At this point, JLP’s work is more educational than prescriptive. “Teams and businesses need to understand how to apply the neuroscience. I won’t start with problems, challenges or objectives, it’ll be ‘what do you know about how the brain processes sound?’”
Last year, Jones published The Music Diet: The Rock and Roll Route to a Healthier and Longer Life. In it she details how music can be used to enhance workplace wellness and tackle work-related stress. She also explains how the functional use of music at work and the promotion of brain health can reduce the risk of developing degenerative brain diseases later in life.
Jones says: “The Music Diet was about trying to pierce a hole in that academic vortex so that a lot of this knowledge comes seeping out into other areas, including sport. Once we get to a point where there’s a baseline knowledge regarding the power of the ears then it’s going to get highly prescriptive because we are then going to be able to model the effect of the brain stem and the amygdala on sounds and songs.”
A new frontier in performance
Jones credits the accessibility and affordability of modern brain scanning techniques for the growing body of research in how sound affects the brain.
On that front, JLP leads through its Surround Sound Strategy. “We conduct a neuroscience led, 360-degree evaluation of your current use of sound,” says Jones. “We then run workshops with your teams and provide recommendations to show how sound and music can boost wellness, performance and experience.”
The process involves using software that models and analyses the brain’s automated responses. Jones shows the Leaders Performance Institute the result of a scan completed of an individual who listened to the ’90s dance classic 9pm (Till I Come) by ATB. She says: “The value of this is that you’re able to look at all the different tracks and say, ‘actually, that’s not producing a high level of arousal, that’s at very low valence; or it’s producing a distressing response in the brain’ or ‘for this particular purpose we want to achieve a certain mindset and so we need to look at the songs that put your brain in that place and that’s what this kind of analysis can do’.”
Songs can also be transcoded into vibrations, which can be transmitted to the skin via a wristband. “Our body doesn’t just experience sound through our ears, we experience sound through our skin,” Jones explains. “The skin is a massive real estate and it’s sending information constantly from our touch receptors.”
There are major implications for general health, particularly for deaf people, to enable them to develop their cognitive reserve – the ability of the sensory cortex to act as an ear might. “From a performance point of view,” Jones continues, “you can amplify the effects of sound in many different ways: you can look at different frequencies that have a different effect on neurochemical release; you can look at different sound frequencies that have an effect on the modulation of the autonomic nervous system, going from high stress, high arousal, to rest and digest, switching on the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing cortisol, increasing heartrate variability. That’s training the brain to hear through the skin.
“It’s got a lot of wellness implications because it can help you to sleep better, which is a big component of peak performance. It can help you control anxiety, it can help you achieve high arousal when you need it – and this is just through vibrations on the wrist.
“You can measure the auditory cortex response but you can also use the vibratory version to model what’s going on in the parietal lobe. It means you can but the brain in a mindset like that – boom – and you can also match it with taste preference because each athlete will have different memories of the same song.” It is an approach that appeals in this era of increasing customisation. “That’s the key: to look at how the brain works but then look at who the person in question is, then do the necessary to make sure you’re using the right content to create the correct brain responses.”
As we wind down the conversation, Long describes sound as the ‘new frontier’ in performance. “Overlay coaching drills with something like music and the engagement is inevitably much higher,” he says. “We also know through research that the combination of synchronised music and movement delivers measurable results around stamina, endurance and general elasticity and coordination. Those undercurrents will inevitably lead to performance gains.
“People will take supplements but because you mention ‘music’ people go down the wrong track. It’s almost like we need to create a vocabulary around sound that resonates as much as other vernaculars do.”
Jones nods in agreement. “Our mantra is that we want to help people be at their best in work, rest and play.”
To find out more, email Dr Julia Jones at:
Download the latest Performance Special Report, The New Now: Navigating High Performance During an Ongoing Pandemic – featuring a selection of insights collected from practitioners around the globe as we all continue through these unprecedented times.