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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

And a Merry locus coeruleus Neuroergonomics Technology to All

Got this twitter Follow (to which I reciprocated) and subseqent DM.

 "...combines neuroscience and music...It's scientifically proven..."
Well, hey, who doesn't like music? This old, ailing, washed-up guitar player certainly does.

Oh, boy. "Scientifically proven." Bullshit Detector Yellow Alert, anyone? Recall this from one of my prior posts?

My repeated attempts to contact Mr. I-Build-Better-Brains guy Jim Kwik were to no avail.

Focus@Will has a nice YouTube presence.

Pretty slick video ad. Nicely done.

 [@01:00] "We have scientifically curated a new, vast library of proprietary music that quickly focuses your attention, reduces your distraction, increases your productivity, and keeps you in the zone."

Those are some pretty bold, unequivocal claims. I will run this stuff past Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen for reactions. See my recent post "Clinical workflow, clinical cognition, and The Distracted Mind."

In fairness to the Focus@Will peeps, they at least proffer some referential science documentation on their site.


Our senses are constantly inundated with information: the light streaming in the windows, the sight of people passing by on the street, the smells of a cafe, the sounds of conversations and dogs barking over the din of city traffic, the light scrape of a scarf around your neck, the pressure of the hardwood table on your elbows. Each time you notice something in your environment, you are paying attention to it. The ability to focus your attention on something while ignoring competing stimuli is called selective attention by psychologists, and we would never get anything done without it.

Selective attention has been likened to a spotlight that you focus on something, and like a spotlight, the beam can be wide or narrow. Right now, your spotlight is focused on this article, which means that it is probably rather narrow. Other aspects of your environment fade into the background in relation to what is in your attentional spotlight. That is, until something distracting happens in your environment, and refocuses your spotlight.

The question many people want answered is how they can maximize focus so that their environment becomes less distracting and their attentional spotlight is continuously focused on their projects of the day. Auditory neuroscience and psychoacoustics (the psychology of sound perception) can help us answer this question...

[T]he trick is occupying your brain just enough to let you work, but feeding your brain novel stimuli at just the right times so that you don’t try to seek novelty by distracting yourself. It turns out listening to music while you work can do the trick [26]. Of course, some music is better than others: music that has emotional or sentimental overtones is likely to stimulate your emotional and memory processing, and music that is too fast, variable, or loud will jar your locus coeruleus back into action [10, 12]. In support of the idea that the pitfalls of distraction and habituation need to be straddled for music to be helpful during work, Huang and Shih (2011) found that when choosing music for a workplace, it is best to use music that workers neither like nor dislike [13]. In 2012, the same researchers concluded that music with lyrics is distracting to workers when compared to instrumental music [14]. Cognitive load theory dictates that if a person is attending to a task like reading or writing, which depend on both the visual and auditory cortices, processing power will not be sufficient to ignore distractions in one of the modalities, like speech.

We believe focus@will works by keeping your brain at the right focus level at least in part by increasing beta and theta brainwave activity. Increases in beta waves have been tied to sustained focus and attentional control, and biofeedback technology that specifically increases beta waves has been successfully used to treat attention disorders [35]. Theta waves, in some situations, are also related to task focus (for example, [36]). We have found that when focus@will audio tracks are played during reading, both beta and theta activity are increased, relative to plain music, in areas of the brain related to task focus and preparedness (see our study).

We hear from our users that we help them reach a psychological state of decreased self-awareness, timelessness, and motivation known as “flow”. Songwriters, musicians, writers, athletes, and meditators separately describe similar experiences of flow [15]. We are preparing a series of experiments to examine this flow state in correlation with focus@will music, and we will post results here as soon as they are available...
I'm no neuroscientist, and notwithstanding that the foregoing short piece on their site (which I screen-scraped off and printed and read) comes with four pages of sciencey-looking citations, I still have questions. "We hear from our users" doesn't count (the plural of "anecdote" is not "data"). Methodologically fastidious pre-and-post "productivity testing" of them under controlled conditions would. Given that their DM cites "over 1 million users," seems like there's an ample available stratified sampling base via which to do so. A few questions:
Is this technology deployed via personal earphones/"buds" ("personalized") or piped in via office sound systems (the equivalent of "Muzak")?
What about peoples' potentially confounding personal music tastes (not to mention the potential transient variability in such preferences)?
Relatedly, demographic "stratification" -- age, gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, education level, field of employment, level of music instrument/vocal competency (e.g., music is inescapably "distracting" to someone with my background)?
"Productivity?" Relevant quantifiable metrics via which to [1] establish baselines, and [2] determine "significant" improvements? Is productivity assessed at the employee level, or aggregated/rolled up to the "team"/department/line functional level?
Bears further study. BTW, they provide another page of voluminous links: PUBLISHED LITERATURE ON MUSIC FOR CONCENTRATION AND FOCUS. While some of that may be "gilding the lily" (relevant quality and applicability matter, not nominally soothing quantity of cites), still, apparently no Jim Kwik reeking-of-BS all-Sizzle "infotainment" woo operation here.
Another head-scratch. Given that they tout that they've "scientifically curated a new, vast library of proprietary music," they might necessarily have a bit of a "Theranos opacity" problem, in not wanting to reveal the "secret sauce" comprising their "proprietary" methodology. Fine. I once worked as the Technical Editor for a digital industrial dignostics company that manufactured and marketed portable (and equally proprietary) digital FFT analyzers in the heavy industrial market (pdf, see here as well). We too had customer "testimonials" -- e.g., one happy client voluntarily reported an ROI of 17:1 after just one year of deployment of our technology. We had a number of those, with RIOs of 10:1 or better (in fairness, it was in part a "low-hanging fruit" phenomenon; they'd had no idea how much money they'd been wasting prior to adopting our tools). Focus@Will could come up with similar quantifiable and verifiable "we hear from our users" (properly their management) ROI testimonies. After all, what's being sold here is significantly improved net "productivity."

Amiable guy, that's for sure. Calls himself a "scientist." See his Sheet. Under "Education" he lists "Singularity University 2011-2011," and "the University of know the School of Hard knocks."


I might run this stuff past my former bass player (late 1970's), now Dr. Scott Lipscomb, (MA, and PhD, Systematic Musicology, UCLA). Underachiever Scott is now Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Director of Graduate Studies at University of Cincinnati's College Conservatory of Music.


Scott responded.
You were absolutely correct to pay attention when your "BS alert" sounded ... whenever phrases like so *many* quoted in your post are used to represent (supposedly) scientific evidence for a commercially available product, it is critically important to be skeptical. In my view, without having any "inside" information about this product, it fails almost every test. What truly gives it away for me is the statement "We believe focus@will works because ...". That is a dead giveaway that they really have no frigging idea what is going on. I am not interested in "belief" (at all) ... what I want to know is what the evidence reveals about the efficacy of the product. The research citations in the blurb provided here hardly provide the kind of clear results that would alleviate my own skepticism.

While I do not consider myself a neuroscientist, I have presented collaboratively several presentations and posters (with real, living neuroscientists!) at scientific conferences that utilized brain imaging techniques (fMRI & MEG) to determine brain function when attending to music and/or visual images (e.g., motion picture excerpts and other forms of multimedia) ... in fact, my real interest in how the presence of sound (in general) or music (specifically) impacts the audience experience. My primary area of research - which has been carried out at The U of Texas at San Antonino (1995-2001); Northwestern University (2001-2006), the University of Minnesota (2006-2016), and the University of Cincinnati (2016-present) - is music perception & cognition. You can use this information to determine the extent to which you should be skeptical of my own response. ;)

Scott D Lipscomb, Ph.D. (that referenced bassist from the 70s)
Associate Dean, College-Conservatory of Music
Professor, Electronic Media
University of Cincinnati

Random thoughts. Might this "scientifically curated, proprietary" productivity-enhancing music be viewed as a "PED" analogue (Performance Enhancing Drug)? If so, might there then emerge a free-rider bootleg Bit Torrent mp3 black market for it? Were it incorporated in "mixtape" fashion into other audio track assemblages, might there be a Monsanto GMO patented/copyrighted seed type "infringement" cause of action? Just some Christmas Eve Johnny Walker Green Label-induced random ruminations...


Speaking of Theranos, the gift that keeps on giving. From Wired:

Theranos: Kinda Sounds Like a God, But Most Certainly Isn’t

No slow-motion-train wreck science story was more riveting this year than the implosion of Theranos, once the darling of the biomedical world. It promised accurate blood tests using just a drop of blood, which didn’t turn out to be strictly speaking “true.” So came the fraud investigations. The lawsuits. The inevitable pivot (a Silicon Valley word meaning “wow what we had in mind at first definitely isn’t a thing”). So where’s Theranos headed in 2017? Eh, probably not super great places, if we’re being real.
Coming soon, my take on Theranos' (misnomer) "QA data."

OK, speaking of music, how about a bit of Holiday music, in the spirit of the Season? 

If the embedded audio player doesn't appear or work, here's a direct link to the mp3 file.

I am half-owner in this project, which was produced by my Las Vegas friends Dave Richardson and Lenny Lopez of the amazing Santa Fe Band, comprised of 15 of Vegas's top casino show musicians (I used to do their photography and ran a blog for them). The Christmas CD, originally released in late 2001, had gone out of print, and I paid to have it re-published, re-doing the artwork myself and setting up a PayPal eCommerce page). I've since taken it offline, having made my money back and then some (most of my latter sales were starting to come from the EU, and the postage and customs documentation hassles were killing me). I have just a couple of boxes of CDs left out in the garage. I give them away to selected people.
The "Little Drummer Boy" rendition is interesting. Lenny told me that when it was first released, they got a lot of angry complaints from customers over the "offensive" Arabic-ish harmonic minor scale-transient-major 3rd-dissonance scat singing (which they'd deliberately put in for historical "religious syncretism" effect). Some people wanted to return the CD and get a refund.
Not kidding. Fifteen years later, widespread anti "Arab/Muslim" sentiments remain, 'eh?
Erratum: Lenny is my tightest of buds (my "brother from another mother"). He did the harmony vocals on my goofy "ObamaCare Free Riders" YouTube music video. Triple-tracked that stuff in all of 30 minutes on my iMac in my study. Dude is a musical genius.
A Merry locus coeruleus Neuroergonomics Technology to All

More to come...

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