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Can this music app boost your brain power? Neuroscientists aren't so sure

Jessica Lipsky | Oct. 9, 2013
Focus@will claims that its music playlists make users more productive and increase attention span by 400 percent with long-term use.

"This is the exact opposite of usual entertainment-based music listening, where you only like music that actively moves you in some way," Henshall adds. "When you're putting together music of your own, you use music that you like. By definition, none of those pieces of music will work for you because you're choosing music for your conscious brain. And by playing those pieces back, you'll get distracted."

Henshall says that engineers have reedited each individual track for the Focus@will system, which has approximately 100,000 pieces of music. The edited pieces are less dynamic in range and adjusted so that "the differences between quiet, less emotional bits and louder, more strident parts aren't so different."

To find the most effective tunes, Henshall, along with a scientific advisory board and UCLA psychology team, conducted "two years of in-depth productivity research" with 200 alpha participants. The group also commissioned a Bowker market research project with over 72,000 respondents before launching Focus@will in May 2013.

And this method is catching on. Focus@will usage is growing at 1 percent a month, with 35 percent of traffic coming from Japan, where Henshall says users listen all day. Henshall says that people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are another rapidly growing user base; he hopes to conduct an informal study of ADHD users and medication in the near future.

Blinded me with science
While Henshall sees Focus@will as a "button you can push when you want to get stuff done," several researchers have expressed skepticism about the application's scientific integrity.

"There's a proliferation of people right now trying to cash in on neuroscience breakthroughs and producing products," says Michael DeWeese, assistant professor of physics at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. "The truth is, we really don't know how the brain works. There isn't some specific fact that has been learned in the last couple of years that would allow someone to build a very powerful, improve-your-brain kind of software or background music."

DeWeese says it's common sense that ambient music would be more conducive to concentration than highly defined or attention-grabbing tunes, and that response to music and attention are highly subjective. Similarly, the extent to which background noise plays a factor in concentration differs from person to person.

Psyche Loui, a psychology and neuroscience researcher and assistant professor at Wesleyan University, agrees. She doesn't know of any peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate how playing a musical piece can "lock in and take over your attention span." Focus@will's science primer cites general cognitive neuroscience, but doesn't describe exactly how the program works.

"We know there's a ton of good that music can do to the brain, and we know that lots of people listen to music in the background while they're working," says Loui, who notes that she won't subscribe to Focus@will. "Different types of selective attention have been shown to be related to brain rhythms in that when you attentively perceive an object, that's associated with some high-frequency rhythms in the brain. But sort of taking those rhythms over using music isn't something I've seen yet."


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