Friday Brainstorm 2 🧠

Music, memory, and writing.

Hey friends,

Welcome back for the second issue of Friday Brainstorm! Hope everyone has been staying healthy and going strong these past few weeks.

I’ll be sharing

  • my latest post on music for productivity 🎧

  • thoughts on adaptive music 🎶

  • a fascinating experiment for frictionless learning 📖

  • and appreciation for a writing instructor ✍️

As always, I want to hear from you. As you read the newsletter, I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions, related resources you’ve found inspiring, as well as any feedback around how I can make these better - just reply directly to this email.


What I’m Writing 🎧

The Definitive Guide to Music for Productivity

Many of us listen to background music while we’re working, but don’t have a good handle on why or how it’s really helping us concentrate.

I set out to understand the science and answer three simple questions:

  • Why does music help you concentrate?

  • What makes good background music?

  • How can music sometimes be distracting?

Here are the key takeaways:

There is nothing special about music - it's just one example of a stimulus (like caffeine) that affects people's mood and arousal, which is known to influence cognitive performance.

  • Mood refers to the quality of the feelings or emotions; it can be pleasant (e.g. contentment, excitement, calmness) or unpleasant (e.g. frustration, boredom, anxiety).

  • Arousal relates to the intensity of the emotional response or your overall physiological activation (e.g. alertness, vigor, wakefulness).

The optimal state for cognitive performance in most cases is moderate arousal and pleasant mood.

Music helps you modulate these two levers depending on the context:

  • Tempo (arousal): uptempo music (100 - 160 BPM) helps raise arousal while downtempo music (50 - 80 BPM) helps lower arousal

  • Familiarity (mood): familiarity with music is an important factor for emotional engagement and can put you in a more pleasant mood

  • Preference (mood): music you don't like might put you in a worse mood, but the research is not conclusive

  • Genre: not important on it's own

There are two ways that music can be distracting:

  • Interference-by-process: the music is inadvertently competing for the same mental resources as the task - avoid lyrical music when working with words in any way (e.g. reading, writing, listening).

  • Attentional capture: the music causes a disengagement of attention away from the task - avoid most kinds of drastic change when choosing your music (e.g. frequent jumps in tempo, frequency, genre).

If you feel yourself getting distracted by the music, try working in silence or with ambient noise (e.g. rain, wind, coffee shop noises).

Effective background music is non-invasive and provides pleasurable feelings. It occupies our mind with just enough novelty to satisfy the involuntary attentional system, without drawing our attention away.

If you’d like a deeper dive into the science of music or just some playlist recommendations,

🎧check out the full article 🎧

This is just part 1 of a 3-part series that’s coming soon:

  • Part 2: What is the deal with youtube videos and music services promising to get you into a flow state? Are they real or just pseudoscience?

  • Part 3: What is personalized, adaptive music? What does the future hold?


Adaptive Music 🎶

In researching my music post, I stumbled upon Endel - an algorithmically-generated, personalized sound environment to help you focus, relax, and sleep.

What’s cool about Endel is that it adapts the sound in real-time based on:

  • local weather conditions

  • time of day

  • heart rate

  • motion

I really like how it was described here:

“Each of Endel's soundscapes starts as a seedling, which grows and blooms into a one-of-a-kind composition. You can corral the parameters by choosing one of the preset modes like Relax, Focus, On-the-Go, and Sleep; but most of the music-making is left to chance and data.”

This is fundamentally different than what we’re used to - static recordings. It’s strange to describe music as static, but algorithms that generate music on the fly may change the way we think about music.

Did I mention that Endel became the first algorithm to sign a distribution deal with a major label (Warner)? That’s pretty crazy.

Endel wants to be more than algorithmic music though. The team is striving to create a cross-platform audio ecosystem, and they’re killing it so far.

What’s really striking is their design. Here’s a snapshot of their beautiful manifesto:

The quality of their branding really reminds me of the early days of Apple, which makes sense since they’ve been partnering with them heavily over the past year.

Definitely check them out - they’re giving a 🆓 free trial month 🆓.


Frictionless Learning 📖

Most people think about think about memory as something largely out of their control, left to chance. But what if there was another way?

Spaced repetition is a powerful system to make memory a choice. It combines two principles from cognitive science:

  • testing effect: when you test your memory of a detail, that strengthens your memory of the detail.

  • spacing effect: by spacing out the testing over time (rather than cramming), you’ll remember the material more reliably in the long term.

Here’s a simple graphic to illustrate how likely you are to forget something after learning it the first time. Reviewing it multiple times helps #flattenthecurve and solidifies the memory:

Spaced repetition - Osmosis Video Library

So think back to school for a minute. As a student, it’s your responsibility to do the readings and remember it for tests. Obviously, this takes some effort.

Teachers try to help with this process by assigning homework with the readings, but what if the student misses a concept? They would have to go back to the first reading to review it before answering the homework for this week. This is time consuming and adds friction to the learning experience.

Imagine if we could get rid of all this overhead. What does a frictionless learning environment look like?

Introducing Quantum Country, a primer on quantum computing written by Andy Matuschak and Michael Nielsen. It’s interface is fundamentally unique - it has spaced repetition built in, so that it’s almost effortless to remember what your read.

As you’re reading, there are little breaks with simple questions that check whether you’ve retained what you just read (testing effect). If you don’t remember the answer, the question will resurface at the next break, along with new questions.

When you get a question right, you don’t have to review it for a while and it moves on to the next level (five days). After five days, you are sent an email reminder to review the questions again. If you get it right, it moves to the next level again (two weeks).

Each level is at a larger and larger interval from the present (spacing effect). Ultimately, this ensures that you retain the memory long term, without you ever having to manually go back and review the material yourself.

School would have been so much easier with this… all you would have to do is read and answer the questions every few days!

If you’re curious to learn more, you can dive into the vast maze of 📖 Andy’s notes 📖. He write openly about the ideas behind Quantum Country, which is essentially an experiment to test out this new medium with spaced repetition built-in.


Life Update ✍️

Writing has been a really rewarding experience in my life lately, and I want to thank David Perell for helping me build the momentum.

His online course Write of Passage was the inspiration behind this newsletter and the reason that I’m writing more consistently these days. It brought me accountability and a community of writers from all corners of the globe, struggling with all the same things that I’m struggling with.

Would be down to chat if anyone is thinking about writing online!


I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Friday Brainstorm! What did you think? Anything that stood out, or sparked your curiosity? Let me know by replying to this email. I’d love to hear from you!

—Shamay