For students looking for a way to focus their minds while studying, researchers at the Strong Foundation have an answer. Their website, Brain Shift Radio, launched after three decades of research on music-based therapy, is an alternative to common mind-focusing methods, such as use of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) drugs.
Users log into their personal accounts and choose from a list of mental states ranging from brain boost and focus to meditation and sleep. Rhythm and ambient tracks are played simultaneously to achieve the desired effect.
The tracks are created based on an algorithm that evaluates rhythm pattern. Strong said rhythm pattern is related to a sentence in which each word has its own sound and meaning.
“If you look at the characteristics of music and of rhythm, you’ll notice that there are different instrumental sounds and different accents and tempos,” Strong said.
Each of these parameters is assigned a value, which are eventually strung together to create an overall picture of the track’s intensity, like words connect to make a sentence.
The algorithm was created based on research on Rhythmic Entrainment Intervention (REI), which has two underlying principles.
The first is auditory driving, the ability of an auditory signal to drive the frequency of the brain. The brain will match a rhythm’s tempo if certain conditions are met, Strong said.
The second principle is complexity — the brain was built for an attraction to novel stimuli.
“When we encounter stimuli that are unusual, our brain keys in to decipher what is going on,” Strong said.
The rhythms used for Brain Shift Radio were constructed so that the brain has something to “chew on,” Strong said. The rhythm in each track is constantly changing and the brain is stimulated as it tries to decipher the music. As a result, the brain’s activity level and focus increases.
The success rate for REI was shown to be 98 percent.
Boston University associate professor of psychology David Somers said the website was “possibly helpful, but mostly pseudo-science.”
He said humans positively benefit from music, as it boosts arousal or alertness, filters out distractions and betters overall mood, but only under certain conditions.
Somers mentioned three factors that must hold for this to work — an enjoyment for the music, an ability to work over said music and a variety in the music.
Somers added that music-attention effects are often learned or acquired and that results are therefore unique for each person.
“I’m very skeptical … the site may not be a bad starting point,” he said, “but it’s going to be pretty far from optimal.”
History of Therapeutic Success
Strong, who studied music at the Musicians Institute of Los Angeles, said his research is based on the therapeutic practices of drumming, which date back to ancient times.
The Shamanic cultures, which date back 30,000 years, used rhythm. This is where the tempo portion of REI comes from. Strong said they used slow beats to enter into an altered state of consciousness.
“The traditional technique used a four beat-per-second pulse,” he said, “whereas we use much faster rhythms — usually around eight beats-per-second and up to 12.5.”
The Yoruba tribe of West Africa also used rhythms in traditional culture to influence the listener. The complexity portion of REI stems from this, Strong said.
He said he brought his theories into a clinical setting when he began drumming for autistic children in 1992. His study involved 16 children who were tracked for 16 weeks.
“We brought each of the kids in a private room where I played live, and a psychologist took notes,” he said.
They tracked each child’s response to the rhythms and the tracks that prompted a positive outcome were put on a recording to listen to once a day.
Researchers noted an overall decrease in anxiety and seizures and an increase in speech ability and sleep.
Strong said he does not have a background in science, but doctors and professionals in the field jumped on board and a 10-year formal study began in 1994.
Strong said Brain Shift Radio is not only a healthier alternative to ADHD medications, which are abused by 34 percent of students, but it is more effective.
A recent study suggested that REI techniques seem to be more effective. A 43-year-old man who used ADHD medication in doses of 20 mg had a reaction to REI music that was twice as effective as the higher dose of medication.
Brain shift radio also shields users from the side effects of Adderall and Ritalin. On USA Today College, a college student reports having nightmares, anxiety and shortness of breath after using non-prescribed medication. The drugs are especially dangerous for patients with pre-existing heart conditions and have been linked to deaths in these cases. They may also worsen behavior, increase aggression and cause lack of sleep, among other side effects, according to The New York Times.
“I’d expect that it alters synaptic regulation and brain networks,” Strong said about ADHD medication.
He said the same benefits can be achieved without using the drugs.
Students said ADHD drug abuse is troublesome, but differed on their prescribed remedies for the problem.
Michael Snyder, a junior in Boston University’s College of Engineering, said people do not want to put in the hard work that their courses demand because it is much too easy to be distracted by technology.
“Too many kids say, ‘I can’t study because I have ADHD,’” he said. “No, you just can’t put your phone down.”
Snyder said he is against the abuse of ADHD medication.
“It’s the easy way out,” he said. “It’s a crutch. Just to have that crutch — it’s terrible.”
Some students said the problem is not the students, but the prescribers.
“It’s prescribed too easily, especially to young children, and its widespread availability kind of makes the abuse inevitable,” said Jasmine Elbarbary, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences.
She said that children have a lot of energy in general and thereby tend to have a difficult time focusing and taking things seriously.
“Not every kid actually has ADHD and needs that kind of medication,” she said, “especially those at a young age.”
Students said they would rather follow healthy methods to stay on top of their work. Zhimu Wang, a sophomore in CAS, said she tries to pay attention to what affects her studying ability- both positively and negatively.
“If I’m tired, I can’t concentrate,” she said. “Negative emotions can definitely affect my ability to study. I will take a rest if I’m tired or if I’m feeling bad, I’ll go to the gym or watch comedies.”
Qi Lu, a sophomore in CAS, said that she prefers safer methods. She added that music is her go-to concentration method.
“I like listening to classical music,” she said. “Slow music is the best.”
Strong said his main goal for the future is adding more material to the website. They began with 50,000 tracks, and now have 75,000. Their goal is to reach 100,000 by the end of the year.
Recent statistical analysis showed that the number of users is now in the thousands and 39 percent of tracks being played are focusing tracks.
The Strong Institute is now working on a mobile app that should be released by the end of 2013.
“As a person with ADHD,” Strong said about the future, “I’m excited.”