Friday Brainstorm 1 🧠

Attention, poetry, music, and community.

Hey all!

Happy Friday and welcome to the first edition of Friday Brainstorm!

I’ll be sharing my latest article, a fantastic podcast episode on poetry, a mind-blowing music neuroscience experiment, and a new community in my life.

Before jumping in, I want to stress that 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.


New Article: The Freedom of Attention

What is technology supposed to be doing for us? In his book, James Williams observes that there is a deep misalignment between the goals we have for ourselves and the goals our technologies have for us. He also recognizes that we need a new framework for talking about attention to fully understand the implications of the deep sense of distraction we all feel.

Here’s a snippet from the article:

What do you pay when you pay attention?

You pay with the everything else you could have paid attention to, but didn't. You pay with all the goals you didn't realize, all the decisions you didn't make, all the versions of you that you could have been.

You pay for those extra few Friends episodes with the sleep you didn't get and the fresh feeling you didn't have the next morning. You pay for that extra hour you spent compulsively reading about the coronavirus with the heart-to-heart talk you could have had with an anxious friend.

“We pay attention with the lives we might have lived. When we consider the opportunity costs in this wider view, the question of attention extends far beyond the next turn in your life’s GPS: it encompasses all the turns and their relations, the nature of your destination, the specific way you want to get there, why you’re going there, and also your ability to ask any of these questions in the first place.”

Stand Out of Our Light is by far the most impactful and profound book I've ever read in the past year. I wanted more people to read the book, so I summarized his most important ideas to get you invested. Read The Article →


Tracy Smith on language and poetry

This is the kind of podcast episode you need to listen to more than once to fully appreciate. Ezra Klein sits down to talk about poetry with Tracy K. Smith, a Pulitzer-Prize winning poet and two-time US poet laureate.

I’ve never really been comfortable with poetry. Honestly, it’s always been kind of intimidating and that’s probably true for a lot of people.

But the way Tracy Smith talks about poetry is so captivating. She describes poetry as being about expressing the “feelings that defy language”. Poetry is hard to interpret precisely because it’s operating on the boundary of what our language supports.

This makes me think about how much influence our language has on the limits of our thoughts (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). When we don’t have a word for something, we’re severely limited in our ability to engage with it. A topical example is the novel concept of “social distancing” and all the connotations that came with it.

To quote James Williams again,

We expand our awareness, both of ourselves and of our world, when we expand our language. We see things we didn’t know to see before, and we learn how to talk about them with others.

As the world changes, we need new words to interface with our current reality. In this light, poems represent one way to grapple with moments of drastic change.

In Tracy Smith’s words,

Poems are resourceful in finding terms that remind us of what we live with but don’t always bring into speech.

With the coronavirus wrecking havoc on the world, how can poetry help us understand our own thoughts and feelings beyond what our language supports?


Decoding musical taste

In doing research for an upcoming article on music, I came across a fascinating public experiment called MyBrainTunes. The question they’re exploring is whether we can use wearable brain monitoring technologies (EEG) to predict our favorite music?

This experiment is unique because they are collecting their data at London’s Science Museum, using visitors as participants in the study. The team hopes to process upwards of 2,000 participants, which would be unprecedented in the field.

I happened to have a work trip scheduled to London, so I stopped by.

Here’s how it works:

  1. First, you listen to a set of 30 songs from the UK Top Charts and rate each one

  2. Then, you listen to the songs again, but this time while an EEG is measuring your brainwaves

  3. The team processes your data and emails you a brain-connectivity graph of your musical taste.

In the image above, you can see the differences in how my brain responds to songs that I don’t like (left) and songs that I like (right). What changes isn’t necessarily the activity in specific parts of the brain, but rather the connectivity between brain regions (the degree to which they are in sync).

Using the connectivity profiles of thousands of people, the research team aims to build computational models that will help us explore and decode people’s music-listening brain states. If the model is accurate, this would mean that the algorithm might know whether you like a particular song just by listening to your brainwaves.

Think about what this would mean - if you were to be wearing a consumer EEG set while listening to music on Spotify, then their recommendation algorithm could tune itself without you ever pressing a button. No more likes or skips. Your brainwaves would tell Spotify everything it needs to know!


Life update: music and community

Music used to be very important to me when I was younger, but it stopped being a significant part of my life after high school.

I figured I wasn’t the only one who missed playing music, so I asked around and brought together a small group of friends to hold each other accountable. The idea: work on something musical, perform it for the group, and get support/feedback.

The timing could not have been worse with the pandemic, but we decided to go ahead with a virtual session… and it ended up being something really special!

The biggest obstacle to doing this virtually was that we’d be missing out on the 1-on-1 conversations needed to get comfortable with each other before performing.

Luckily, Zoom’s breakout rooms feature let us get around this problem. We ended up doing a round robin of 1-on-1s and it ended up working phenomenally.

This is all to say that there are so many ways to build community and stay connected while practicing social distancing. I’m hoping this personal example spurs ideas for how to navigate these strange times.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this first edition of Friday Brainstorm, and hope to see you at the next one! 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