It’s no secret that the modern world is becoming more fast-paced, complex and stressful thanks in part to our use and increasingly dependency on technology.
The powerful computers we carry around all day that continuously notify us with alerts from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and ping us from messaging apps such as Whatsapp, iMessage and KIK are something that previous generations never had to contend with.
The always-on 24/7 lifestyles we lead where replying to work emails on evenings and weekends is the standard and where sitting on a chair in front of a large screen ten hours a day is becoming more commonplace as work in the Western world shifts from blue collar to white are putting strains on everybody’s mental fitness.
Our constantly distracted and wandering minds are feeling the strain so it’s no surprise that Eastern relaxation practices such as meditation, mindfulness and yoga are seeing a surge in the Western world.
Though technology can often be the cause it can also be the cure and a growing market of devices that monitor and control the body’s stress mechanisms by providing neurofeedback data are coming to market, one of which is the Muse EEG headband.
What is the Muse headband?
The Muse headband is a consumer-ready EEG (electroencephalogram) headband from Toronto-based InteraXona that measures the electrical activity in your brain. It allows you to practice meditating while at the same time receive neurofeedback on how well you are doing.
The headband has seven sensors that detect brainwave activity and with an accompanying app displays this activity visually so you can analyze the data over time.
Muse debuted at CES in 2013 but originally started as an Indiegogo campaign in 2012 raising almost $300,000 and has received a further $7.2m prior to its launch last year.
What is EEG?
Your brain’s cells communicate via electricity and produces different electrical waves depending on the activity it’s performing. For example, Delta waves are produced during sleep, Alpha waves when the mind is relaxed and calm, and Beta waves occur when our minds are actively thinking.
Overactive thinking can often lead to anxiety and stress, and EEG allows you to identify this activity and train the brain to become more resilient during these times. Recording EEG has been around for many years but was largely used in research labs until recently as the sensor technology is becoming better, cheaper and more suitable for the consumer market.
How does EEG (and The Muse) help in brain fitness?
It’s been known for years that meditation has numerous health benefits including helping calm the mind. Studies have shown that when you’re in a meditative state your brain produces alpha and theta waves, and those who practice meditation regularly can train their brain to operate in these states during times of stress and mental discomfort.
But the question is, when you’re practicing meditation how do you know if your brain’s producing these wave types? Well with EEG tools like the Muse we can use neurofeedback data to understand how and when the brain is in a meditative state by receiving real-time feedback as well as see improvements over time.
How do you use the Muse headband to train your brain?
The Muse headband fits around the forehead and tucks in behind both ears. To pick up the brainwave activity each sensor has to have direct contact with the skin during calibration and the session itself.
According to InteraXona the brain changes moment to moment so therefore the headband has to be calibrated before each session to ensure that it provides accurate feedback. Running a session requires the headband, an accompanying smartphone (or tablet) app synced via Bluetooth and a set of headphones connected to the device to deliver neurofeedback data in the form of sounds to your ears depending on how your brain is performing. Session times are run on the user’s own personal preference (I currently run 12 minute sessions).
There are two different audio settings: the first is as if you’re on a beach. If your mind is calm so is the beach but if your mind begins to wander then the sounds of sweeping winds and crashing waves can be heard. Bring your mind back and the beach is calm again.
The second setting, which I prefer, is basically the sound of rain which increases or decreases depending on your brain activity. Both settings include bird chirping sounds which signal that you have quietened the winds and rain for a long period of time. On the flipside, hearing the birds can be a distraction too so staying focussed as they chirp is part of the challenge.
First and foremost the Muse headband certainly works. After a good session (‘good’ because the data told me so) I feel a sense of calm and clarity much like I would after regular ‘eyes closed and focussed on the breath’ meditation session.
The EEG neurofeedback from the device helps me get back into the meditative zone after my mind has begun to wander. There’s nothing like a big crashing wave or a burst of heavy rain to make you aware that your mind has wandered!
That said, for me the Muse isn’t a replacement for regular meditation but rather a training device to get into deeper meditation. What I’ve found is, because of the real-time feedback, the Muse allows me to identify the process my mind has to take to get my into a deep state. This same process I’ve applied to regular meditation sessions which have helped me get into a deeper state for longer.
Think of it like this: the Muse allows you to train and build your focus just as lifting weights allows you to train and build your muscular strength. The 500+ minutes I’ve spent using the Muse have certainly helped me to go deeper for longer in regular meditation and for that reason I’ll continue using it. Plus the neurofeedback data it provides allows you to compete with yourself to reach higher point scores.
InteraXona is still a start-up and I have had a couple of issues with my Muse after the app has been updated. One big app update caused the Muse to be unable to find a signal from a couple of the headband sensors so I was unable run a session which was frustrating to say the least. Frustration being the last thing you want before meditating.
There have been a couple of issues while calibrating the headband before a session too but that said their customer service is responsive and bugs are usually fixed pretty quickly.
I’d recommend the Muse to anyone who is serious about improving their meditation and who enjoys pouring over data after training. At $299 it isn’t cheap so for now it’s probably only for the more hardcore quantified selfers and neurotech enthusiasts.
In my n=1 experiment however it’s no gimmick and a wearable tech product that does provide a genuine benefit.