Culture

Einstein vs. The Clash: How I used music to hack my brain

I get my brainwaves scanned to see whether a concentration app that uses music can help achieve that all-important flow.

A string quartet serenades London commuters to celebrate "Genius", the story of Albert Einstein.

National Geographic

As I'm writing this article, I'm listening to the Clash -- and someone is reading my mind.

I'm being tested to see how my concentration changes when I listen to different music. A brainwave scanner is strapped to my forehead and I'm listening to the staccato strains of "This Is Radio Clash". As the song ends, I continue writing while a very different tune begins: It's a piece of ambient music designed to complement the way my brain works. Will this music hack my mind and improve my concentration?

This special concentratin' composition comes courtesy of the Focus@Will app, which plays music that allows you to enter a state of total focus. As a writer, maintaining focus on the task in front of me is both a necessity and a daily battle. And I'm not the only one struggling to concentrate. The internet, social networks and our phones constantly tease us with more distraction than we've ever known before.

A century or so ago, Albert Einstein didn't have to worry about the distraction of Netflix, Instagram et al. The legendary physicist is the subject of new drama "", produced by and airing now on National Geographic around the world. To celebrate the show, Nat Geo is trumpeting newly composed musical pieces from Focus@Will that highlight how Einstein used music to focus.

"Einstein was an experiential scientist, so he had visions," explain Focus@Will founder Will Henshall. He's a former member of synth pop band Londonbeat and was later responsible for developing part of recording-industry software Pro Tools. "How did Einstein get these visions? By playing the violin, which helped him to get into a flow state."

Geoffrey Rush plays Albert Einstein (and the violin) in National Geographic's "Genius".

Dusan Martincek/National Geographic

Flow is a state of pure focus and concentration, when the outside world falls away and you lose yourself in the task at hand. "It's very enjoyable," says Henshall. "When a human is in a flow state they are doing the thing they are doing to the best of their ability. When Einstein got himself into a flow state by playing the violin the part of his brain that was disconnected from the real world was able to then go and figure this stuff out."

Music is useful for helping you enter the flow state because the things you hear can distract you from a task. While you can devote your endogenous attention -- your eyes and hands -- to the task in front of you, you can't shut off the exogenous attention of your ears, which are scanning all around you for warnings -- even when you're asleep, a loud noise will wake you up. So in order to properly focus on a task, you need to tune out the distractions of the world around you. One way of doing that is to listen to music.

But most music refuses to be ignored. Pop and other genres are deliberately designed to evoke an emotion or even a physical reaction, from tapping your foot unconsciously to fully going for it on the dancefloor. "Music goes straight in your ears and straight to your brain stem," says Henshall. "It bypasses all thinking. If you hear a piece of music right now from the first time you made out with someone, you'd be like,'aaahhh...' You can't help it. That's why we like music."

The most distracting artists? "It's almost impossible to work with Snoop Dogg and the Beatles," says Henshall. "Whether you hate or love the Beatles doesn't matter. Put the Beatles on and try and do something -- it's impossible."

The music available through Focus@Will strips out that distracting physical or emotional reaction. There's no singing, and no instruments that evoke the sound of a voice, like a saxophone. The tempo and volume stay even, and the music avoids peaks and troughs that might evoke excitement, tension or melancholy. By listening to this emotionally blank music, Henshall reckons that the time an average person can concentrate on a task is extended from 20 minutes to over 100 minutes.

As an example of this kind of music for concentration, Focus@Will has come up with "Einstein's Genius". It's a range of music that draws on the baroque violin melodies that Einstein used to play, combined with pulsing electronic beats to absorb you in your task.

So does it work?

I'm taken into a quiet side room, where Focus@Will's other co-founder John Vitale gently places a black horseshoe-shaped Muse brainwave monitor on my forehead and asks me what music I like. I opt for the Clash, and when "This is Radio Clash" kicks in, I start to write.

Should I stay or should I flow? The Clash onstage in 1978.

Eileen Polk/Getty Images

When the sounds of the Clash are replaced by the ambient Focus@Will music, I do feel myself getting into a rhythm as I sketch out the first draft of this article. I had started by listing facts -- "Genius" is about Einstein, Ron Howard directed it, it's on National Geographic -- but as the ambient music played, I began writing rather than listing, linking facts together and expressing opinions in a more creative way. The question is, was it the music or was I just naturally getting into the task?

My brain scan provides the answer, and it's startlingly clear.

The symphony of the hemispheres

"The brain is like a symphony," explains Focus@Will's resident neuroscientist, Dr Julia Mossbridge, after I complete the writing test. "You always have a bunch of different frequencies going on at the same time."

On her laptop, Mossbridge shows me a video of my brain labouring to write while under the influence of music. Beneath the image of my brain is a graph of my brain's gamma waves, which are a good indicator of attention. Two wavy lines represent the gamma waves detected by electrodes on each side of my head. The lines are way apart during the Clash song, the right hemisphere of my brain showing a much higher gamma level than the left: the two sides of my brain aren't in sync.

But then the music switches -- and the two lines begin to converge.

The green and blue lines represent the gamma waves in the left and right hemispheres of my brain, the lines converging as I begin to focus.

Focus@Will

Within moments, Dr Mossbridge points out, the gamma levels are in sync. My left brain and right brain are working together.

I'm focused. I've found my own little piece of flow.

Maybe there's something in this brain music after all.

Interestingly, different brains work in different ways. Looking at my brain scan Mossbridge asks me if I'm a musician, and before I can answer, she tells me she knows I'm not. "I just knew that from your brain," she smiles.

I've never felt less cool in my life. Oh well, at least now I can blame my brain for never having become a rock star.

People who are musical are "almost always working with both sides of the brain together, and what helps them concentrate is to pull them apart." Mossbridge shows me a graph of the brainwaves of her son, who, unlike me, is left-handed, musical, and dyslexic -- and where my brainwaves converge as I concentrate, his diverge. That's because people with dyslexia often learn to read using their right hemisphere instead of the left, the two sides of their brain working together to overcome the difficulty. "So they're already used to having more communication between the hemispheres," says Mossbridge, "which ends up supporting music and creativity. It's the way their brain solves problems... it's kinda neat."

In other words, music can help our brains focus, but not necessarily the same music.

Mossbridge is excited about the possibilities for music to help people not only with concentration and creativity, but potentially with mental health and other issues. "Thousands of years ago, shamen and medicine healers knew you can play certain types of music and have an effect," she says. "Look at a mother singing the baby to sleep -- there's a reason why all of those lullabies sound the same. They literally make delta frequencies in the brain of the baby, and delta frequencies are associated with sleep. It's something that people have always known, but didn't know that they knew... Now we actually have the scientific tools to say, okay, what's going on?"

"I have this belief that music will be like the new superfood," Mossbridge says. "I think eventually we'll say, 'you're depressed, did you listen to your baroque music today'? Right now it seems fuzzy and strange because so many questions haven't been answered, but it'll become obvious."

I've always believed in the power of music, but I didn't realise how directly it affected me on a physiological level. Now I believe in music even more -- I've got the brainscans to prove it.

Of course, I'm still going to listen to The Clash... just not when I'm writing.

"Genius" is on National Geographic on Sundays at 9pm in the UK, and on Tuesday in the US.

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