Dan Clarke is the founder of Brain.fm, a service designed to help you focus on your task. It was popularized in 2016 via an AppSumo deal but has gone through many iterations since then.
Brain.fm helps you manage distractions which can be a real challenge for writers. Distractions can take you away from your flow state and affect your writing.
Dan Clark talked with me about how Brain.fm evolved and how writers and creatives can use it. Dan also states that it pays to understand what time of the day you’re creative, what time you’re productive, and what times you should step back from your work, switch off, and even do nothing.
He talks about finding a balance between being bored and hyper-energetic and how that sweet spot can help you get into a creative groove.
This interview is a more extended episode than usual because Dan has given a free preview of Brain.fm, which you can listen to at the end of this episode around the 25- or 30-minute mark.
In this episode, we discuss:
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Dan: I think that for someone that needs to just get work done and go through it, yes, really what deep work is is designed for, but for a writer specifically, it’s actually gonna be the creative function. And this is specifically designed through some of those science principles that I was chatting about before, the neural phase locking, but also through these other things like genre and the different kinds of moods that we’re creating for this to give you the environment of being the most creative as possible and really using that while you work.
Introduction Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: How can you manage distractions as a writer? Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast.
Managing distractions isn’t easy, particularly when you’re starting off. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve opened up my writing application of choice, it could be Ulysses or Scrivener, and I’ve tried to write and then something will happen — my phone will go off or a notification will pop up on my computer or I hear a noise downstairs or a delivery man will call to the door. I’ve learned the hard way a few tips and techniques for managing distractions. Perhaps the biggest one for me is putting my phone in a different room to where I write. And I also rely on timers so I’ll set a 30-minute timer and write or just focus on one part of my manuscript until the timer elapses and then I’ll get up and take a short break before restarting the session.
Even when I get interrupted, it can take some time to get back into flow state so what I typically use is a set of noise-cancelling headphones. At the moment, I’m using a set of AirPods Max.
Now, it’s not necessary to go out and buy yourself a set of AirPods, any set of noise-cancelling headphones will do. Sometimes, I’ll listen to ambient music, but a service I’ve used on and off is Brain.fm. Brain.fm is a service that was popularized in 2016 via an AppSumo deal but has gone through a lot of iterations since then.
I recently had the chance to catch up with the founder of Brain.fm. His name is Dan Clark and he’s talked about how Brain.fm has evolved and how writers and creatives can use it. One of my key takeaways from talking to Dan is that it pays to understand what time of the day you’re creative, what time of the day you’re productive, and what times of the day you should step back from your work, switch off, and even do nothing.
Dan also talks about finding a balance between being bored and being hyper-energetic and how that sweet spot can help you get into a creative groove.
Now, I hope you enjoy this interview with Dan and it’s a longer episode than usual for a good reason. Dan has given a free preview of Brain.fm which you can listen to at the end of this episode around the 25- or 30-minute mark.
So listen to the episode as normal, then what I encourage you to do is go somewhere, open up your first draft or your manuscript or whatever creative project you’re working on, plug in a set of headphones, make sure there are no distractions in the room, and listen to Brain.fm and work on your manuscript until the end of the podcast episode. And then ask yourself did it help you get into a state of creative flow faster? You could also take a free trial of Brain.fm on their website, brain.fm.
If you enjoy this podcast episode, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store or sharing the show with another writer. More reviews and more ratings will help more writers find the Become a Writer Today Podcast. And if you’ve got feedback, you can always reach out to me, I’m on Twitter, @bryanjcollins
Now, let’s go to this week’s interview with Dan Clark of Brain.fm.
Bryan: Like many writers, I sometimes struggle with distraction. One service I use regularly is Brain.fm, which helps me get into flow state faster. I wanted to talk to the person behind Brain.fm, Dan Clark. Welcome to the show, Dan.
Dan: Thanks for having me.
Bryan: So I’ve used Brain.fm on and off since I think 2016. It helped me write one of my books, oddly enough. It’s an interesting service in that it’s unlike what you’ll get in Spotify or YouTube. But before we get into that, could you give listeners a flavor for who you are and how you came to be involved with Brain.fm?
Dan: Do you want the short story or the long story?
Bryan: Well, whichever one works.
Dan: So, my background is technology and I made my first website when I was 13 years old. I was always really interested in how you can build services to help people around the whole world. And at the same time, I’m a secondary black belt and I used to teach kids martial arts and I was so excited about how you can use martial arts as a vehicle to transform, you know, kids that were shy and not confident into leaders.
And I started building — I thought I was gonna own my own martial arts school, started building out websites for the school, and then my instructor, he went from having 20 leads to 120 leads. Before long, I’m building out websites for all of his friends, building out a lead-generation business, and then actually sold that business when I was 20 and really started embracing technology and growing and going and going into more and more things.
Eventually found myself as digital director of a company selling million-dollar deals but I didn’t feel like I made it. Maybe it looked like that on the outside but I realized I wasn’t really helping people anymore. I actually had a near life or death situation which made me relook at things and I said, okay, you know what, I gotta get out of this, I gotta find something that I can use technology to help people.
That was around 2015 or so and actually discovered Brain.fm. So, I wasn’t the founder of the company. Just like you, I actually found it during that AppSumo deal and I remember using it for the first time and taking my headphones off and going, whoa, this is what I’ve been looking for this whole time, this is something that you can really control any kind of mental state you want.
And it doesn’t matter if you speak English or Mandarin, it works because we’re human. So, from there, I called up the company like 12 times, I convinced them to let me work for free, ended up becoming the lead engineer, becoming CEO, and then outright buying the company a few years later. So, it’s been a wild ride but it’s always been that first usage that showed me that there is something here that can help a lot of people and it’s our mission to make the world plus one better, depending on, you know, what you’re looking for.
Bryan: How would you describe what you hear when you plug in your headphones and press play on Brain.fm?
Dan: So I think it’s, you know, the simplest way of describing is the world’s most advanced background music. So you’re gonna listen to something, you’re gonna hear music that sounds good that you actually wanna listen to, but the magic about Brain.fm is about after five minutes or so, it kinda just melts into the background. And instead of listening or thinking about the music, you’re only thinking about the task that you’re doing so you can stay focused and really dive to a deeper level than you could by yourself.
Bryan: When you’re listening to this type of music, is there any science behind how it works or is it more of a placebo effect?
Dan: Yeah, great question. So there is a ton of science. So we’re actually science first company. So taking a step back, right, where we create functional music, and functional music has been around for a really long time. If you ever heard of binaural beats or isochronic tones, these are all different types of, you know, music created with function.
The special thing about Brain.fm is we actually have these patents on doing a functional music in a different way that’s ever been done before and we’re doing it through neural modulation using amplitude modulation to basically change the rhythms and the patterns in your brain. So, basically, what that is and how it compares is that when you’re listening to our music, we have these rhythmic pulses and what’s happening is it takes you from one almost mental pattern and as you’re listening to it, it starts syncing that mental pattern and helps you switch to your flow state, to creativity, to relaxing.
And we find we can measure this with fMRI, which is blood flow imaging. We can do this with EEG, measuring the electrical impulses off of your head. And we can also actually measure this with psychological and different kinds of SART tasks, which are like really boring video games which we design purposefully to help someone work through that and push through distractions that they may have come up. And what’s really unique about this is, again, it’s never really been done before. So, for example, binaural beats, have you ever heard of it?
Bryan: I have. I’ve experimented with binaural beats as well.
Dan: Okay. So, binaural beats, for maybe your listeners that haven’t heard, is basically playing one frequency in linear and one in another. And in your brain stem, it basically combines together and there’s an amplitude. And the idea is that when you have this pattern, this amplitude pattern in your brain stem, through the process of mirroring or entrainment, it basically spreads throughout your brain. The challenge with binaural beats is even though it does have some effects, your brainstem is one of the more ancient parts of your brain and has less resolution than the rest of your brain.
And what we’re trying to do with amplitude is we actually skip the brainstem and we directly entrain the parts of your brain, like your prefrontal cortex, that directly control the mental states that we’re trying to, you know, impose. So what happens is we basically can have a better response and a quicker response than listening to binaural or isochronic tones which allow you to just put it on and within five minutes, you can switch your state and stay there.
Bryan: So I’m looking at the Brain.fm dashboard at the moment when I logged in on my web browser and there’s three options — Focus, Relax, and Sleep. So, could you walk through how a writer would use this to work on their first draft?
Dan: Yeah, sure. So I think part of jumping into working is the 360 part of everything, right? So it’s not just showing up while you’re working, it’s also preparing yourself for work. And it really actually depends on the writer. So, if someone’s listening to this and they have trouble maybe becoming motivated or sitting down to work, I would recommend them working on focus and using the different types of focus that we have.
So in some of our new apps that are coming out soon, we actually divide our focus category into creativity, into deep work, and into learning, and I think that for someone that needs to just get work done and go through it, he is really what deep work is designed for. But for a writer, specifically, it’s actually gonna be the creative function. And this is specifically designed through some of those science principles that I was chatting about before, the neural phase locking, but also through these other things like genre and the different kinds of moves that we’re creating for this to give you the environment of being the most creative as possible and really using that while you work.
And there’s different ways you can use it but I think it’s really about, you know, finding out what works best for you, you know, whether it’s a 30-minute or a 90-minute writing session and being able to, you know, experiment with that.
Bryan: Have you found clients have a preferred session length or users?
Dan: Yeah. So it depends on the person. We find that people usually gravitate towards unstructured so, you know, something 90 minutes or more, especially for writers, which are, you know, trying to find this, this flow state or this effortless place where they can just, you know, write uninterrupted.
We also have some people on the other end which they use this as almost like a sprinter starting gun and they try to use this for ideation and figuring out what they’re gonna write about. And they actually switch to a relaxed session while they’re writing to be able to continually stay in a more relaxed state because some writers find that they need that more, you know, and really, the power of a tool like this is it really helps you really find out what works for you.
There’s this theory of optimal stimulation, this chart, and on one side is being bored, on one side is being too energetic and distracted, and the real power is finding the middle ground of being in that sweet spot of being able to be focused.
Bryan: Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, I guess if you’re too distracted or too energetic, you’re not gonna be able to focus and if you’re too bored, you’ll just waste time on social media. So, when I go into Brain.fm, there’s the three options that I described a moment ago and there’s also More Music section. It looks like there’s been quite a lot of addition since I’ve logged in last. Did someone compose all of these or were they created with an algorithm?
Dan: Both, actually. So, what we’re doing is we have in-house composers that are responsible for making all of the music and we actually have an algorithm that uses the music that were created for purpose and then applies the science parts that we need. So, instead of just having a music generated by an AI, it all eventually sounds the same, right? And what we’re trying to do is have humans do what they’re really good at, which is be creative and really drive the process, and then computers do what they’re really good at, which is basically math, to be able to eventually create a product that both sounds good but also has the effects that we’re looking for.
Bryan: And then just to return to the binaural beats which you talked about, how would you say this is different than listening to music? And the reason I ask is a lot of writers, myself included, sometimes listen to the sound of rainfall or some sort of white noise which can help get into a focus state.
Dan: Yeah, so we have all these different types of genres. We do have atmospheric and rain and all these. The main difference is that I think it adds the music or the listening experience that why people are listening to rain to the next level. So, a lot of times people are listening to music to actually separate from their environment they’re in.
Maybe they’re at home or in a coffee shop or they’re trying to, you know, tell themselves that it’s time to work. So, from the way the music sounds, we do cover that. And we actually test all of our music in more than just some of those patents that we have being able to know which knobs to play with. So, for example, well, okay, rain, well, which rain, you know? Is there a bird, you know, calling in the background? Is there not? We do a lot of these different kinds of tests on all the music and know which knobs play. For example, some of our music actually has 3D sound incorporated.
So, especially our focus music, it actually sounds like it’s coming in front of you, which allows you to stay focused on the work in front of you. So, you know, we’re doing things more than just having like rain sounds, we’re actually enhancing the rain and all these other kinds of genres of music to all be designed for working. And then as we, you know, build out a category and we apply those music, those music effects of the science, we can also layer in where it’s music that you want, it has all the things that you’re already listening to. But now it’s one step better because it’s already been shown in tons of studies to be able to help you get into that focus zone but also sit there.
Bryan: Okay, okay. Do I need a set of headphones to get the most benefit?
Dan: Yeah. We totally recommend using headphones just because of all the different kinds of things that can go on in your life and be around you. And it’s still effective without headphones but, you know, if we’re all trying to perform at our best, it’s definitely, you know, we’re always looking to have 100 percent effectiveness.
Bryan: Yeah. During the lockdown, a lot of people would have spent more time working at home and small environments, maybe they’re sharing a kitchen table or a quiet space in the house with someone else or their partner or a friend so they need to get into kind of a creative station, maybe headphones are the way to do it. Did you notice that more users joined Brain.fm during the lockdowns?
Dan: Yeah, totally. A lot of people came to us. The really interesting thing was a lot of people came to us for focus, which is our bread and butter, but a lot of people started reporting that they used our relax sessions or our sleep sessions too. And I think as I was kind of chatting in the beginning, one of the really important things about having relax and sleep is being able to plug in but also it’s really important to plug out, because I think a lot of us just wanna work, work, work and get there but when we can relax or meditate and have that in our schedule, that can actually help us go to the next level when we’re plugged back in.
Bryan: Yeah, I mostly use the focus session, to be honest. So, it sounds like I should use the relax session for meditation. Are there any other uses?
Dan: Yeah. I mean, so, one, I would say that you can do some interesting things like doing relax before you do a focus session, because it basically calms you down to then bring you back up. Or let’s say you have a long workday, you can take a relax break, almost reset yourself, refresh yourself, and then start another focus. And then, you know, it really depends on you. So, some people like to use all of us.
They use focus, relax, and sleep. Some people really find that sleep is really helpful for naps or for long-range sleeping. I would say that, you know, the best thing for everyone here is trying the focus, really trying this for a writing session. And then upon finding results of that, I would start experimenting with incorporating relax or sleep into your day and finding what benefits you the most.
Bryan: Okay. And if I’m using the sleep session, do I have headphones on and I just leave that on for the night or do I just leave it on and then just take a nap before I fall asleep?
Dan: Yeah, good question. So because most of our science is those modulations, the way it works is if you think about your brain or your state as in a resting state, this isn’t an exact neuroscience, but you can kind of almost think of we have to speed your brain up so those modulations and patterns inside the music are fast.
And if you don’t have headphones on, you can miss them, you know, kind of thing. In our relax or our sleep, if you really listen to music, it’s slower. So you certainly can use headphones to sleep if you want to but it’s actually not necessary. Because they’re so slow, they’re really easy to hear and it’s something you could just put on your pillow or you can use a Bluetooth speaker and get the same results.
Bryan: Okay, okay. Any plans already support for an offline mode? Because I’m thinking sometimes the internet can also be a distraction, as much as it is helpful for creative work.
Dan: Yeah, totally. Yeah, so we do have an offline mode on our mobile app so we have a web app as well as iOS and Android. We are releasing some new apps in the new coming year, which we’re really excited about, some new branding stuff, but also some desktop apps as well to help people be able to, you know, not go to the computer or the browser to distract them.
Bryan: Okay. So I’m interested in Brain.fm from a point of view of writers but when we were chatting before the call, you were saying that there’s lots of other use cases and audiences who were using it. Would you be able to describe a few of those?
Dan: Yes, sure. So, you know, Brain.fm is really all about how to switch your mental state and then stay there as long as you want. And a lot of these, the things that we’re talking about for writers apply for other kinds of workers as well, you know, between deep, deep working or, you know, creating different kinds of learning. So we have a lot of students that use this to help them stay focused on learning or reading or whatever it may be, researching. And then we also have a lot of desk workers.
So people that are — how do I crank through three hours of emails as fast as I can but also in a way that I’m not performing less or really exhausted at the end of that day? So we’re seeing that a lot in the consumer space and our consumer app is growing. We have about 2 million people now.
And then as we really started growing and building the business, we started finding that there’s opportunities in selling this to big Fortune 100 companies, which we do, but the one that I’m most excited about actually is helping people in the medical space. So we actually have a paper in review in Nature right now which basically shows that we can create some of our music specifically for people with ADHD and helping them compared to, you know, other types of music. It’s pretty extraordinary the results that we’ve been able to show in lab testing.
And we also are using our music in actually anesthesia, before someone goes into anesthesia, helping control anxiety, reducing blood pressure, heart rate. And then actually, afterwards, and in some of our pre-pilot exposure, we’re seeing people waking up up to 200 percent faster just being exposed to music and being able to be more coherent when they’re waking up.
Bryan: Oh, wow, fantastic. And when you use the word “music,” I was immediately struck because music, you know, has a start and an end point whereas a track in Brain.fm seems to just go on. So, is it on a loop or does it just vary with modular tones?
Dan: Yeah, great question. So a lot of our music right now is actually designed to be 30 minutes. We find that over those 30 minutes, it’s a right place for you to stay focused and really get into that deep zone. But anything more than that, it starts getting a little bit stale after like 45 minutes or so. So we actually switched the genre of music. But the main, like draw to the program is that it all sounds somewhat similar to the starting piece but it does evolve and change and grow so it’s always something stimulating but it’s never necessarily distracting or something you’ve ever heard of before.
Bryan: Just to return to your backstory, you mentioned you were in engineering for Brain.fm before you bought the company.
Dan: Yes, I was.
Bryan: How did you find the transition from being a product engineer to running a company?
Dan: Strong difference. You know, I’ve had some experience running companies before and growing companies but Brain.fm is a different beast and I say that in a way because we’re trying to really, on one side, grow the business and help people by spreading what Brain.fm could do, and on the other side, you know, we invest heavily in neuroscience.
So we have a full-time neuroscientist from MIT and Harvard that works for us as well as different collaborators around the world. We have IP strategy which is all of our patents that we, you know, really protect and grow upon. And for a while, it’s almost challenging to build a business that is profitable and wants to help people and, at the same time, you know, invest in science to be able to make that better.
And we finally found, you know, this really great synergy between both where, you know, the more people we help, the more we can invest in science, the more science can show us how to help more people and make it more effective and then we can spiral up, but it did take a little bit time to figure out how to do that and do it in the right way.
Bryan: If somebody is listening to this and they’ve used Bryan FM in the past, what changes should they expect in the future for the product?
Dan: Yeah, great question. So I think for a really long time, we’ve been investing heavily, heavily on, again, that science that we were talking about as well as the way we’re making music and creating that. The next year, I’m really excited because we’re launching a brand new app, which is still Brain.fm, but now it’s based on activity. It’s based on different kinds of power levels of those modulations.
So we’ll have different neural effect levels in the app. And as we start growing into the future, we’re gonna start having even better personalization systems. So, right now, we have you know, a like, more favorite, then we’re gonna have a favorite dislike, we’re gonna have a session algorithm that learns and creates music specifically for you.
And then, eventually, and some of the things we’re working on right now is how do you start incorporating different kinds of wearables and data to inform what actually makes an effect on you, because all the stuff that we’re talking about actually affects your physiological function, it redirects blood flow in your brain, it changes your skin temperature, all of these things, and if we get to learn more about who you are and what you’re optimizing for, we can actually start making music specifically for you.
Bryan: Kind of like a WHOOP fitness tracker or the Oura device.
Dan: Correct, yeah. So things like that and then you hook them up as long as you’re willing to Brain.fm and then we can start measuring your heart rate and different kinds of things to, you know, optimize and get you into the same kind of mental state every single time.
Bryan: Might also help people identify when they’re creative and when they’re productive and when they should switch off or do nothing.
Dan: Exactly, exactly.
Bryan: How much is Brain.fm to use at the moment?
Dan: So right now, it’s $7 a month or are $49 a year.
Bryan: Where should people go if they want to learn more about the service, Dan?
Dan: Yeah, they can go to brain.fm or they can search us on the iOS or Android stores and we give everyone a three-day trial before getting started so everyone can, you know, try it out themselves. I always recommend, again, to sit down with 60 minutes of work in front of you, where you’re saying, “Okay, I’m not gonna be distracted,” put your phone on silent, do not disturb, and just listen to our focus music. You’ll find at the end of your session, you have more energy but also there’s a really cool time dilation effect where you’re like, “It’s already been 60 minutes? This is crazy.” It’s a lot of fun.
Bryan: So this is normally where I wrap up the podcast but someone listening will probably see that there’s another 10 or 20 minutes to go. Would you be able to describe the offer that you have or how you’re previewing Brain.fm for listeners?
Dan: Yeah, of course. So what we’re gonna do next is we’re gonna stitch in a preview of Brain.fm so you can listen to it right here and this is one of my favorite tracks coming up, but you’ll be able to hear that it is music that sounds just like any other music but the effects start in five minutes. So, I would say if you have any work in front of you right now, keep listening and see what different focus music can do for you.
Bryan: Thanks, Dan.
Dan: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Thanks to listening to Brain.fm Focus. For more unlimited functional music, please go to brain.fm or find us on the app store.