Tech that wants to get inside your head

Man holding head with waves coming out of them Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Increasingly devices and apps aim to get inside your head

We all have ways of getting through a bad day in the office - whether it be a cup of extra-strong coffee, a bar of chocolate or simply tuning out and listening to music.

Now technology is becoming available that aims to help the daily battle to stay on-task.

Will Henshall used to play guitar in R&B band Londonbeat, and, while he would not want to question people's music taste, he has some very fixed ideas about what you should be listening to at your desk.

U2 or Snoop Dog on your playlist? Turn it off immediately if you want to get any work done.

"Those are the two most distracting types of music, and it is no coincidence that they also happen to be two of the biggest selling artists. It turns out that listening to music that you like will distract you," he said.

Working with neuroscientists, Mr Henshall has spent several years exploring which music best engages the parts of your brain that aid concentration.

His research indicated the best music was neutral, something that workers neither liked nor disliked. Music with lyrics was too distracting when compared with instrumental tunes.

The trick, according to Mr Henshall, is to occupy your brain just enough to let you work.

He has gathered a bunch of remixed music together on a website, called focusatwill. Users can choose from 10 categories - including Classical, Ambient, Up Tempo and Acoustic and can set the energy level they want.

"It turns out that the music that works best for you is unique to you," he said.

So far the website has 300,000 subscribers, and, according to Mr Henshall, the average user will engage with the site for seven hours a day.

Users are given a month free trial during which they are given tips to find out what music works best for them, and, if they like the system, can subscribe after that for $5 (£3) a month.

In May the firm launched a channel aimed specifically at people with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

Mr Henshall told BBC: "We live in an always-on world and distraction levels are so high. I'm here now at Venice Beach in California, and everyone is looking at their phones and not the sunset. What's going on with that?

"It is increasingly difficult to concentrate on doing anything. I want to create technology that helps us do stuff rather than wasting time and also helps us get our sense of selves back."

But not all neuroscientists are convinced.

"I'm not aware of any convincing research showing that certain types of music can be beneficial to concentration," Dr Matt Wall, from the Imanova centre for imaging sciences, told the BBC.

"It's true that purely instrumental music is better to have in the background while you're working than vocal music (as it interferes less with verbal working memory), but any old instrumental music will do, and arguably it's better to have nothing at all in the background if you're really trying to concentrate," he added.

Digital Red Bull

Thync is a three-year-old start-up founded by engineering and neuroscience experts from Stanford, Harvard and MIT.

Like focusatwill, it wants to use technology to unlock the power of the mind and has come up with a wearable that it claims can literally alter your mood.

"We can tap into pathways we have inside us and trigger a response - it is tapping into the power of the mind," said Issy Goldwasser, co-founder of Thync.

The system works via a headpiece that is connected to a mobile app via wires - there are no pictures yet as the firm does not want to reveal the product until it is launched in 2015. Details of how exactly it will work were also sketchy.

It may sound like a step too far for many, but investors seem to like the idea - so far it has raised $13m in funding.

Talks with the Federal Drug Administration, not always the easiest regulator to please, are also going smoothly, Mr Issy Goldwasser .

"We are in dialogue with them, and so far things are going well," he told the BBC.

"It is not enhancing you in any way. It is more comparable to having a coffee or a Red Bull," he added.

Some electrical brain stimulation equipment already on the market was recently criticised by scientists from Oxford University.

Writing in the Journal of Neuroscience, Roi Cohen Kadosh warned: "It is not something that people should be doing at home at this stage. I do not recommend people buy this equipment. At the moment it's not therapy, it's an experimental tool."

For Dr Wall, the science behind the product seems solid, but he remains to be convinced about how much help it will be to individuals.

"It's hard to evaluate at the moment, as they haven't actually released a product, or even many details about what the product might actually be," he told the BBC.

"My natural instinct with this is to be sceptical, and cautious. It's true that you can get reliable effects with devices like this in the laboratory, and in some ways they do seem to be able to 'enhance' performance, but the effects are generally quite small."


Advances in understanding how the brain and nervous system works will be responsible for some life-changing technology, according to most experts. But for now, any neuroscience-based spin-off industries remain embryonic.

Neuromarketing - a term coined by the marketing industry to describe firms such as Sensum, which offers to measure emotional responses to content in adverts - is particularly unproven, according to Dr Wall.

"I have a quite sceptical approach to these things and to the whole 'brain training' idea and am generally of the opinion that these products are massively over-hyped," he said.

"Most of these products don't really have any solid data behind them and haven't been convincingly shown to produce the effects they claim."

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