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How exactly does Focus@Will work?

By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D., “Dr. Julia”
Science Director, Focus@Will Labs

The question I most often hear from Focus@Will subscribers is, “Okay, yes, it makes me more productive. Are they giving me subconscious suggestions or something? How exactly does Focus@Will work?” My short answer is always the same – “No, they’re not giving you any subliminal messages. And I don’t know for sure how it works, but I have some good guesses.” But lately, I’ve been thinking it’s more honest to just say, “Yup! They’re giving you subliminal messages.” Because that’s really what I think is happening.

Don’t get me wrong! I don’t believe that the Focus@Will sound engineering team is hiding secret words in this music that we all play when we really need to get something done. First, I know they’re not doing that. Second, if they did that, it wouldn’t work – it would be mentally distracting.

Nope, they’re not hiding secret, subliminal words in that productivity soundtrack. They’re playing non-verbal messages right out loud! They are only secret and subliminal because your conscious mind doesn’t understand them. And that’s the point. Your conscious mind can’t understand them, but the rest of you does, and the rest of you responds beautifully, leaving your conscious mind free to do your work. Before I get more into detail about how I think that’s working, it’s time recap of all the science showing what we already know Focus@Will does.

  • Focus@Will boosts task persistence – the ability of your conscious awareness to stay on target while you are working on a task. Read more about task persistence and the Focus@Will study here.
  • Unsurprisingly, Focus@Will subscribers report significantly better focus when listening to Focus@Will as compared to their own music, but don’t just take their word for it – their own reports of focus were also linked with better scores on a logic test. Read more about self-perceived focus here.
  • Indicators of cognitive flow increase for people listening to Focus@Will and changes in heart rhythms during Focus@Will listening are more similar to those during flow states than during listening to regular music. Read more about Focus@Will, flow, and heart rhythms here.
  • As Focus@Will subscribers reported being more focused over a 2-month study, their wellbeing improved – it’s not clear which caused which, but does it matter? Also, Focus@Will shows a trend toward boosting people’s moods and making them more focused on connections. Read more about focus and wellbeing here and about mood and self-transcendence here.
  • For those subscribers 45 and older, on average, Focus@Will supports remembering and learning words significantly better than when people of the same age listen to silence or other forms of music (even Spotify and Pandora focus music). Read more about the verbal memory results here.
  • In certain situations, Focus@Will actually helps people access future information that most people think we should not be able to access! Read more about the precognition results here and in the academic publication here.
  • Finally, when it comes to boosting creativity, Focus@Will hits the ball out of the park — or if you want a more creative metaphor — Focus@Will produces a giant explosion of guppies from the kitchen faucet. Overall quality of creative thinking is significantly higher when people are listening to a Focus@Will channel of their choice, as compared to other music. Read more about the creativity results here.

When a bunch of people (like Focus@Will subscribers) say something works for them (like Focus@Will audio), as a scientist you have no idea if they’re fooling themselves. That’s why I asked Focus@Will to hire me in the first place – I was stunned by my own anecdotal experience of being way more productive when listening to their channels, and I wanted to figure out if I was fooling myself. But this set of results suggests there is something actually going on here – with focus, task persistence, flow, memory, and creativity, and perhaps with mood and intuition to boot.

Now, how does all this work? Again, no one knows for sure, but I have a few guesses. Those subliminal non-verbal messages I talked about earlier? They are all about telling your alert system to calm down so you can just do your work. Let me explain.

  • In general, there are two types of attention: externally-driven attention and internally-driven attention – Focus@Will seems to reduce the amount of attention driven by external things (distractions in your environment).
  • One of the most general mechanisms of changing your attention is for your brain to secrete neuromodulators – chemicals that are put out by brain cells and that act on surrounding brain cells as a group.
  • Dopamine, the “feel good” chemical, is a neuromodulator – and dopamine has been shown to be released during pleasant music (there is a great New York Times column about this here).
  • Meanwhile, when part of your brain called the locus coeruleus (“LC”) releases another neuromodulator called norepinephrine  (“NE”) when it’s on high alert after some external input shows up that needs attention.
  • When your eyes dilate, there’s some evidence that more NE is released by the LC – and it turns out that vocal and familiar music dilate your pupils more than unfamiliar instrumental music does, suggesting that when you listen to the unfamiliar instrumental audio provided by Focus@Will, you are not activating this “externally-driven attention” system as much as when you are listening to regular music (see the academic article here).
  • It seems likely (but we don’t know for sure) that the combination of focusing on your internal thoughts, ignoring external input, and also feeling good all support creativity and a feeling of flow.

Finally, I am often asked if there are other types of music that produce these same effects. Maybe so! I don’t know. Perhaps there are. But because I already know Focus@Will works for me, I know I’m not fooling myself, and I have some kind of hypothesis about what’s going on – I don’t feel the need to find out.

Having said that, it would be very useful for the whole world, especially for kids with attention-deficit disorder, if an academically-based music or creativity researcher could find out. There are compelling results here, and they will be that much more compelling in the future when this is all better understood.


NOTE: While researching and writing this blog post, I used the Propeller Drone subset of the Labs channel, one of many diverse channels created by Focus@Will labs.

About Julia Mossbridge:

I am a futurist, scientist, and author. I am the author of Unfolding: The Science of Your Soul’s WorkThe Garden: An Inside Experiment, and I co-authored a textbook with Imants Baruss, Transcendent Mind: Re-thinking the Science of Consciousness, published in 2017 by the American Psychological Association. I am also the Science Director at Focus@Will Labs, a Fellow the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a Visiting Scholar in Psychology at Northwestern University.

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