Gut Check looks at health claims made by studies, newsmakers, or conventional wisdom. We ask: Should you believe this?
Music composed “specifically for the brain” might help Olympic wrestlers win their matches in Rio, according to the startup Brain.fm, which sells 30-minute (and longer) online sessions of new-age-y compositions that it says can help people focus, sleep, or relax.
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Some members of the US Olympic wrestling team are using Brain.fm to sleep better, said coach Matt Lindland in a statement: “Reliable and adequate sleep is essential for recovery and overall performance. The short-term results [from Brain.fm] with wrestlers in the past four months have been quite promising.”
Brain.fm is one of a burgeoning number of “neurotechnology” companies that sell some form of external stimulation — sometimes electrical, but in this case acoustic — to, they say, improve brain function. The company claims on its website that “brainwave entrainment” — exposing the brain to a sound frequency matching that of one kind of brainwave — can stimulate productivity, focus attention, and improve sleep.
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A handful of published studies have found that it’s possible to enhance particular brainwaves via rhythmic sounds piped into the brain at a particular point in a wave’s natural cycle. Just as pushing a playground swing makes it soar higher only if the push is correctly timed, so amping up a brainwave succeeds only if the sound arrives at the right moment in the wave’s cycle.
Scientists at Northwestern University recently reported enhancing brainwaves associated with sleep, something that might one day be used as a sleep aid, while a 2013 study found that entraining brainwaves enhanced sleep-related brainwaves in a way that improved short-term memory.
Neurotechnology claims tend to be light on evidence, and Brain.fm’s are, well, optimistic. “There is a growing body of work on facilitating brain rhythms at certain frequencies by using sounds with the same frequencies,” said Ken Paller, director of the cognitive neuroscience program at Northwestern University, whose lab studies the use of entrainment. But “why that [entrainment] could possibly help athletic performance, I don’t know.”
One red flag is that in published studies like Paller’s, the tones are timed to an individual’s brainwaves, making each pattern unique. To entrain brainwaves, you have to stimulate them at exactly the right point in their oscillation, said Northwestern’s Giovanni Santostasi: “When you do stimulation with sound, timing it to the [wave’s] phase is essential.” Where brainwaves are in their oscillation can be detected only with an EEG, which obviously can’t be used when the customer is on the other side of an internet connection.
The basis for the company’s claims are also iffy. In saying its music improves heart rate variability (a measure of fitness) by 85 percent and stress indicators by 27 percent, Brain.fm cites a 2013 paper that described results in 10 subjects, which is too few to be credible, and was published in what is considered a junk-science journal. The claim that “beta brain stimulation” increases energy is sourced to a 1986 paper on how dental students can reduce stress.
Brain.fm Cofounder Adam Hewett conceded that no peer-reviewed studies support the claim that its music improves mental focus or sleep quality, but said “we are working on publishing them. … We are absolutely dedicated to science.”
The company has collected many testimonials, which, although no substitute for rigorous research, offer hints about how Brain.fm’s music might help with focus or sleep and thereby athletic performance. The explanation is tied to the company’s trial-and-error approach. If the music a customer gets — “one that works for the vast majority of people,” said Hewett — doesn’t work or if the user stops listening, we “give that genre to you less.”
One common thread runs through research on music and athletic performance: the most effective music is that which athletes find “motivational” and that they believe they chose themselves (even when researchers only fooled them into thinking they had done so). If Brain.fm’s customers believe the sounds they hear have been scientifically matched to their brainwaves, and settle on music that they believe works for them, that belief could make it so. Through that placebo effect, the music could indeed improve sleep, focus, and even reaction times, motivation, alertness, confidence, and endurance — which might help wrestlers and other Olympians.
Music also works by “lowering perceptions of exertion and thereby increasing the amount of [exercise] performed,” sports scientists at England’s Brunel University wrote in a recent review.
Lindland, the US wrestling coach, said his athletes use Brain.fm to improve their focus while training. He considers his wrestlers “test subjects [for Brain.fm] to develop customized audio for driving gains in our strength training and recovery routines.”
Believing might make it so. We’ll leave it at that.