The ancient but fragile science of apps that promise to help you sleep or focus
These lines would have to be the fruit of the activity of a concentrated mind. They have been written to the sound of Focus of the Brain.FM application. From the hooves comes a distant melody reminiscent of the sound of a hang -percussion instrument consisting of a hollow piece of metal- and much closer you can hear a buzz similar to that heard when diving. The underwater touch is one of the available channels, you can also choose a forest, the rain or simply choose between styles, such as classical or electronic music.
Brain.FM was born in 2005 as a patent registered by software engineer and founder of this startup, Adam Hewett. The document itself describes the system as “a method of incorporating brain wave entrainment into an audio composition through the selective modulation of composition elements.” In 2015, the patent materialized in the application that is putting the soundtrack of the writing of this text. In addition to selecting styles and sounds, users can choose the state of mind they are looking for – concentration, sleep or relaxation – and the time of the session.
Works? It’s early days, but we can talk about three superficial advantages: the songs – to call them somehow – are easy to ignore, that is, you will not discover yourself setting the rhythm with your head or they will stay stuck for days. On the other hand, the movements of the neighbors disappear from the soundscape associated with teleworking. Also, if you use wired headphones, the side effect of being literally tied to the computer is achieved.
Drums of war
In its simplest description – listening to music to achieve one state or another -, Brain.FM it’s nothing new, explain Jordi Auset, doctor in communication, engineer and musician. “The influence of music on moods is known. There are signs or references from ancient Egyptian and Greek cultures ”. The expert turns to the history of mankind to find all kinds of examples of these practices. He cites the bible, Muslim hospitals between the 10th and 17th centuries, the work of the Spanish Jesuit Juan Eusebio Nieremberg, author of Hidden philosophy of music in man and nature; the hiring of the opera singer Farinelli by King Felipe V to improve his depressive state; Count Karl von Keyserlingk’s commission to Johann Sebastian Bach to compose musical works to treat his insomnia; or even the use of drums in battles. “Scientifically, it is shown that sound and musical stimuli with certain characteristics and, depending on a series of personal variables, can affect the levels of segregation of different neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin) that are correlated with our mood. and well-being ”, adds Jauset.
New, or at least more typical of this century, is the emergence of platforms dedicated to generating this content through the intentional design of certain musical parameters and selling them through subscription models such as those used by Spotify or HBO. “Although these products are designed based on the results of statistical studies with groups of people, it is not possible to guarantee that it will work with all,” explains Jauset. This is how the model of Brain.FM – it costs about $ 7 a month or $ 50 a year – or from its newborn competitor, Restflix. The latter hit the market last July and has become popular in the media with the inevitable nickname of Sleep netflix.
“Our users are mainly people who suffer from anxiety, insomnia or tinnitus,” says Kevin Hillman, founder of Restflix. The platform offers a catalog of contents in which “relaxing” images are mixed with musical compositions that seek to promote sleep with the use of binaural beats. This technique is based on the theory that exposing each ear to a different frequency can achieve different benefits, such as improving sleep or memory. In Restflix, the user can play a video in which a loop of luminous jellyfish is combined with the familiar pair of hums and some notes coming from a piano.
How much can we trust the effectiveness of these sounds? “It is true that for a few years there have been some studies that have shown that there are frequencies that can reinforce some phases of sleep associated with deep rest,” explains Javier Puertas, vice president of the Spanish Sleep Society (SES) and coordinator of the Sleep Disorders Unit, Hospital Universitario de la Ribera (Valencia). Another thing is that the scope of these studies ensures the effectiveness of applications such as Brain.FM and Restflix. According to the doctor, there is still not so much scientific evidence that these sounds can control, for example, the duration of the sleep phases: “We are working intensely on it, but it has been shown that with some frequencies or others we can controlling EEG activity is more doubtful ”.
A buzz for everyone
Jauset and Puertas agree that the effectiveness of these remedies is not universal and in this diversity the techniques of those who concentrate better on listening to heavy metal are as acceptable as those of those who resort to Gregorian chant. “The effects of sounds and music are not universal. The statistical results are considered for their commercialization ”, explains the first. In this sense, Puertas does not rule out that in the event of consolidation, applications that use these frequencies have to use one or other parameters depending on the particularities of each individual.
“The musical pharmacopoeia does not exist”, sentence Jauset. But there are some notions that can help everyone to make their own. Musical works that do not include lyrics and have a tempo lower than the personal heart rate, he explains, can contribute to relaxation or facilitate study and reading tasks. Likewise, fragments of blues or jazz can go well to initiate an intellectual task that generates a certain laziness. “But they are not universal rules, there are many conditions,” he insists.
In the case of sleep, attention management is key. “Nobody remembers exactly when they fall asleep,” begins Puertas. In this sense, any measure that distracts us from the urge to sleep without requiring excess attention that ends up waking us up can be beneficial. “We must direct our attention to relaxing things that allow us to lower our level of vigilance and alertness,” he adds. This is where the content they offer fits Brain.FM and Restflix, but the sound of a hairdryer – which seems to help babies – or the hum of the air conditioner would also do. “Being a monotonous acoustic information, the brain does not create expectations about what can be heard, so it does not pay attention to it, thus reducing cognitive resources. But it is also possible that it is considered as an annoying vibrational information, generating tension and undesirable attention, which undermines the required state of rest ”, reasons Jauset.
The pandemic and social distancing have not exactly contributed to improving the population’s sleep habits. “We have had patients who have altered their routines and schedules tremendously during confinement. In addition, people went to sleep with intense and dramatic worries that have made them have more distressing daydreams, ”says Puertas. From these experiences a renewal is derived with everything that has to do with controlling and improving rest –wearables, devices, apps-, which does not necessarily bring the desired benefits. “If there is no behavioral sleep hygiene, they will not work,” says the doctor.
In general, both experts prescribe common sense in the expectations we place on these technologies, both in their dubious universality and in their scope. “My opinion is that there is a lack of more scientific studies in this regard that allow, with prudence, to give a more solid answer”, concludes Jauset.