Distractions have never been more ubiquitous than they are today: social media apps, text messages, web browsers, pop-up ads, email, and messaging platforms, not to mention the offline stresses of everyday life. If only you had the brain power to focus more, right?
One startup thinks it has the solution. Brain.fm has developed a platform that plays music specifically engineered to help your mind do one of three things: focus, relax, or sleep. The company claims that the musical tracks feature frequencies that closely align with those naturally present in your brain, helping zap or lull it into the desired state. The tracks change based on how your brain responds to them–and each is composed entirely by a computer.
The startup is the brain child of Adam Hewett and Junaid Kalmadi, two entrepreneurs who had previously founded their own companies: Kalmadi started a networking app and Hewett launched a music composition software called Transparent. Hewett, a musician himself, founded that company in 2003 after reading about the effects music and rhythms can have on the brain. Instead of a product for consumers, Transparent’s software was geared toward scientists looking to engineer their own tracks.
When the two met at a conference in 2014, Kalmadi was fascinated.
“I started experimenting with the technology myself and started to believe in it,” says Kalmadi. “I asked, ‘Why is this still in the lab? Why can’t anybody use this as therapy?'”
The two decided to partner up. Hewett drained his retirement account and Kalmadi pooled his cash, and with a collective $100,000, the pair co-founded Brain.fm.
Listening to a “focus” session, which is what 90 percent of Brain.fm users choose, is a calming experience. Press play and the music starts–a soothing, gently pulsing track that combines ambient sounds with slight melodies.
You’re supposed to listen through headphones to full take advantage of the way the music was composed to move around in a 3-D plane: The track begins at the sides of your head, then gradually moves toward the front, hopefully pulling the listener’s attention along with it.
This movement also helps prevent habituation–the brain’s method for drowning out repeated stimuli. While a thunder clap out of the blue is startling, for example, the brain will get used to it over time. By subtly moving the noise in that 3-D space, the platform helps prevent that conditioning and maintain the music’s effectiveness. But there’s a fine line between keeping the user’s attention and being distracting. “It’s a very subtle interplay, and it took us a long time to get that right,” Hewett says. “Thirteen years to be precise.”
Hewett’s experience with Transparent helped him understand the intricacies of creating these brain-focused tracks. After he and Kalmadi decided in 2014 that they would make a consumer-driven product, Hewett spent five months preparing the algorithm.