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.

How it works

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."

Robot composers

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. Instead of composing the music himself, Hewett used a form of machine learning known as emergent technology. Thousands of "mini-bots" were all assigned identities--a drum beat, a violin note--that then compete to arrange themselves within a track. When patterns emerge in the first several dozen measures, the bots arranging themselves in future measures learn to mimic those patterns. The result is a musical track with gentle, functional, pulsing beats. "This isn't for composing Billboard hits," Hewett says. 

Brain.fm now has hundreds of tracks, each with a theme: rain, beach, or forest, for example. A listener who presses play hears the music, and after several minutes the app asks him to rate its effectiveness. Since each person's natural brain frequency can vary slightly from the next, the algorithm tries again until the user rates it as being very effective. 

Neuroscientist Dr. Giovanni Santostasi has been performing controlled studies on Brain.fm's users. The results: Users of the "focus" sessions performed significantly better on tasks than those listening to a placebo version. Hewett and Kalmadi think they're onto something big--and that customers will be willing to pay for their product.

Users get seven free sessions, then have to pay at a rate of $9.95 per month or $59.88 per year. Hewett and Kalmadi say they're still tinkering with these price points, and that they currently have 22,000 subscribers and expect that number to climb to 83,000 within the next six months. The company, which launched in November and has nine employees who all work remotely, became profitable in March.

The science--and the skepticism 

The scientific concept behind Brain.fm is known as brainwave entrainment, a method of stimulating the brain with pulsing sound or light. The music is supposed to coerce the brain into a desired state of focus or relaxation by emitting the frequency that corresponds with it.  

Research on entrainment dates back several decades, but scientific studies pointing to its merits began springing up in the mid-aughts, around when  Hewett founded Transparent. A peer-reviewed 2015 study in science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that entrainment "is tightly coupled to ... task performance." Some therapists use it--like those that purchase Hewett's own Transparent--but Brain.fm is among the first to try to make this kind of therapy broadly commercially available. 

Not all experts are convinced technology like this is based in hard science.

"The topic of brain rhythms is a complex and highly controversial one, even among experts, and there is no established consensus on what role such rhythms really play," says Jan Schnupp, professor of neuroscience at Oxford University and author of Auditory Neuroscience: Making Sense of Sound. "However, the nice thing about music is that it really lends itself to harmless and fun self experimentation. If it works for you, great, and if it doesn't work for you then any claim that science says it could work won't be much help."

Published on: Jun 28, 2016