short circuit

Why US Greco Roman Wrestling Turned to an 'Audio Brain Stimulation' App

US Greco Roman coach Matt Lindland enlisted the services of Brain.fm to help his wrestlers relax.

David Bixenspan

Image: US Army/Flickr

The United States Olympic Wrestling Team deserves some time to chill.

Just look at what it's been through. Three years ago, there was a brief period where it looked like this year's games would be the last to feature wrestling, one of the original ancient Olympic sports. At the time, the belief was that when the International Olympic Committee made the call to cut an event, wrestling got axed because FILA, its international governing body, was too complacent and gave no consideration to the idea they had a shot of being cut. Seven months later, thanks to grassroots campaigning and pledges to make the sport more TV-friendly, wrestling got the spot intended for a new sport in the 2020 games.

Of course, we're now far removed from those anxieties, but Matt Lindland, the Greco Roman team's coach and a 2000 silver medalist himself, had noticed that some of his wrestlers were not getting their optimal rest and relaxation. "Greco-Roman wrestling is a physically taxing sport on the body. Reliable and adequate sleep is essential for recovery and overall performance for any Greco athlete," Lindland told Motherboard. "I had athletes that were having sleep issues like insomnia, which were affecting their performance." So he went looking for a "healthy sleep-based solution," and one of the people he asked was author Steven Kotler, whose subjects include consciousness and emerging technology. Kotler, in turn, introduced the team to Brain.fm in February.

Brain.fm was birthed in 2014, stemming from research by its parent company, Transparent Corp., which had been developing "the gold standard of 'audio brain stimulation' software for neuroscientists, researchers and hobbyists." You may be familiar with biofeedback, guided visualization, and the like; Brain.fm is in that vein. In Transparent's 13 years, it has collected EEG data that helps it determine what music is best suited for five different goals: Focus, sleep, meditation, nap, and relaxation. "All the music is composed for a specific mental state, like reading fiction vs. focusing hard on a math problem," programmer/founder Adam Hewett told Motherboard. "In Brain.fm we call that Relaxed Focus vs. Intense Focus."

To achieve these goals, they've developed protocols based on the EEGs which guide the compositions. Right now, they have over 100 hours of music, with each session designed to last 10 to 15 minutes and more new content being added regularly; you shouldn't get hung up on the music being a repeat while you're trying to relax or concentrate. The site encourages you to use headphones, and there's a good reason for that: It takes advantage of stereo imaging a lot more than the average recorded music these days. "The first thing you might notice is that in our tracks," Hewett explained, is that "the music appears to swirl around your ahead, or it will feel as if you are really inside a natural environment—on top of a mountain, near a waterfall or under a thunderstorm."

So far, those eerily three dimensional soundscapes have done the trick for Lindland's athletes. Team captain Robby Smith had been needing over the counter sleep aids, like melatonin, both to fall asleep and stay asleep. "After using Brain.fm's sleep option," Lindland noted, "Robby is now successfully off all sleep aids for over two months and credits brain.fm." Smith didn't stop there. "I gradually started also using the focus and relaxation music to help me prepare and get in the zone for practice and then wind down from practice," Smith told Motherboard. That sold the rest of the team, who have followed in listening to the focus-oriented programs to prepare for workouts.

Junaid Kalmadi, who heads up Brain.fm's marketing, design, and business development efforts, is aiming much higher, though. "Our mission is to solve ADD, anxiety and insomnia via combining music with auditory neuroscience," he told Motherboard. How long it could take them to get there is a mystery, but he's enjoying the ride. "The process of connecting the dots is challenging and exciting at the same time."