In Philip K Dick's book Do Android's Dream of Electric Sheep? (aka Blade Runner), the lead character Rick Deckard and his wife alter their mental states with devices called Mood Organs. Rising in the morning, Deckard dials in a "businesslike professional attitude", while his vengeful wife selects no fewer than six hours of "self-accusatory depression".
If it is not yet clear, the book posits that the Mood Organ is bad — a way to feel without meaning. Imagine, then, someone reading about the Mood Organ and deciding it was a bad idea only because it had been poorly executed.
Enter Brain Shift Radio, an application built in part by Jeff Strong, a percussionist who spent more than a decade studying ethno-musicology and therapeutic rhythms. The resulting web app, which is free for unlimited use in this beta phase, harnesses "Rhythmic Entertainment Intervention" to let people "shift their brain" from one state to another. The user makes simple requests about how they'd like their mood to shift, and the system churns through research and data, spitting out an answer in the form of looped instrumentals purported to affect the brain in the specified way.
Say it's just before lunch at your New York office, and you need an energy boost. You could select "I'm tired and feeling mentally groggy," and listen to a delightful ditty called "Metal Element" which "stimulates the lung and large intestine meridians of the Chinese medical system." You could also walk down to the corner shop instead, to purchase "Essence of Dragon Spine" from the man selling watches from a table.
The difference: Brain Shift Radio works. Sort of.
Music has been used therapeutically since well before music apps gripped us. For all its silliness (see this excerpt from the app's End User Agreement: "Brain Shift Radio assumes no responsibility whatsoever for adverse reactions such as anxiety or aggression that may result from a user who plays BSR tracks at a volume that is too high"), it seems that Brain Shift Radio mixes can achieve their desired effect.
There's always an element of self-doubt: "Am I feeling it? I think I'm feeling it. Is it working?" But without the requisite decade of qualifications needed to challenge the ethno-musicological research powering Brain Shift, we'll take Strong's word that BSR has harnessed music's known power to alter moods. Certainly, the site's interface and presentation are impeccable. Ambient and rhythmic tracks can be remixed and swapped to the listener's pleasure; the community is active in building mixes; and the music streams at a high-quality, through an elegantly simple player.
Our subjective experience of the service is a positive, if quizzical, one.
Even at its best, Brain Shift Radio is only a more benevolent Mood Organ. The music is purely medicative - a means to an end, an entity as useful as a pill. There's nothing personal or transcendent about any of these tracks. You will never hear anyone say, "I love that one song 'For Insomniacs,'" or "The ‘single Udu drum to help the most difficult to get to sleep people' is really captivating."
The website claims people listen to music prescriptively all the time, and that it's just streamlining the process. But there's a big difference between most people's conception of music and mood and BSR's. Listening to Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks after a break-up is worlds apart from spinning "Single Gonga #4 — Uplift" from "I feel numb and empty" on Brain Shift Radio (not to be confused with the music of Evanescence).
A beat is not a pill, and the music lover's mind is not a gearshift. The About section by BSR co-founder Beth Kaplan Strong feverishly exclaims, "Imagine the child who now falls asleep easily because mum turned on his sleep track. Or the hordes of us who can reduce our anxiety by playing a custom calm track."
Ultimately, a kid asking his mother to sing his favourite lullaby is slightly less sinister than his requesting a "sleep track," and there's something dystopic in the image of hordes of people relaxing in sync to the same beat. Does Big Brother know about this technology yet? Admirable though the research and execution of Brain Shift Radio may be, the next time it's 6am and I'm hung over, I think I'll skip the "I'm really wasted and physically uncomfortable" mix and listen to "Tequila Sunrise," instead.
As always, your mileage may vary.
Evolver.fm observes, tracks and analyses the music apps scene, with the belief that it's crucial to how humans experience music, and how that experience is evolving.