Can A High-Tech Headband Make Meditation Easier?

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When I was first introduced to meditation, I was 18 years old and I thought it was the worst idea I'd ever heard.

After growing up with misdiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,  I was just beginning to chip away at recovery from when my therapist recommended meditation as a coping skill. At the time, it honestly sounded roughly as appetizing as an invitation to bathe in freezing pool of salt and vinegar while nursing some open wounds—I didn't want to spend more time absorbed in the painful thoughts and memories that quickly got away from me when I tried to focus on "nothing."  

MUSE Brain Sensing Headband, $249, Muse

At 22, while I was getting sober, meditation was recommended to me once again — but this time, it was suggested that I try it in tiny, two-minute increments, just once a day, by using my the timer on my iPhone (fact: this is also when I discovered that I had a timer on my iPhone). Six months later, as my 23rd birthday gift to myself, I took a half day introduction to meditation course, and my life of regular-ish meditation began.

Meditation, as a technique and a practice, dates back thousands of years, but the modern meditation world is rapidly changing due to the introduction of tech — like the countless meditation apps that allow users to to optimize their experience by customizing according to what mood they're in at the moment, whether they're commuting on the bus or at home dealing with PMS. There are futuristic meditation meccas literally being built in New York City that utilize sound, color, and breathing techniques (holler back, INSCAPE!) and there are devices like Thync that aim to either energize or relax you with pulse vibrations.

For the past four years, meditating regularly has been one of my loftiest goals, and I tried to find ways to build it into my life every day. I went to classes around New York City, I read books on meditation, mindfulness and Buddhism, and I looked up guided meditations on YouTube. I practiced, but not on the daily, and that, they say, is when things really start to change — when the auto-piloted response of urgency and anxiety begins to dissipate and dissolve little by little, replaced with a sense of calm and acceptance.

So at the end of 2016 (for those of you reading this in the year 2062 via brain chip implant or whatever they've come up with by then: everyone concurred that 2016 was awful) I decided to get myself into a more regular meditation habit by incentivizing myself to use a very high tech device that I saw posted on Facebook: MUSE.

MUSE is a headband paired with an app that reads your brainwaves before and during the meditation, using something called electroencephalography to pick up on the signals in your brain (via little bits that cling to your forehead). It uses those signals to help bring you back to your breath when you get distracted. It’s kind of like a FitBit for meditation and it seemed that there was immediate demand for it —it was initially crowd-funded past its initial goal.

The logistics of the MUSE are fairly simple: after choosing from five different downloadable soundscapes (desert, rainforest, etc), you begin to meditate. Throughout your meditation, the “weather” will get louder when your mind starts to wander, and quiet down when you are “calmer” and more focused. You can use headphones, or just keep your phone on speaker. If you’re really calm for more than just a few seconds, you’ll hear the sound of birds chirping.

MUSE's promise of futuristic progress charting, as well as its promise to help me bring me back to the breath, was exactly what I needed. I wanted to be accountable to meditating — to have some sort of reason beyond, you know, just my own wellbeing, quality of life, relationships, sleep, emotions, or whatever. The part where I had to "bring myself back to my breath" while distracted always got me, in the end. It even poked at that almost decade-old fear of being absorbed during meditation by the evil-thought locusts that would make me anxious instead of calm. More often than not, by the time I caught myself thinking, I had come up with a list of so many things I needed to do, or write down, or remember, that I'd already halfway check out for the remaining 5-10 minutes.

MUSE Brain Sensing Headband, $249, Muse

To find out what my experience was like—and hear what some seriously Zen experts have to say on the matter—take a deep breath, try to make your exhale longer than your inhale (because that relaxes you even more),and read on to find out what it’s like to have your mind literally read.

THE EXPERIENCE

After turning on the headband and opening the app on my phone for the first time, I activate Bluetooth, and saw that the device was scanning my brain — for what exactly, I wasn’t sure. The weather in the app under the Rainforest sound setting sounded like a “wintery mix” with a side of locusts, which I presumed was not a good sign. The fact that the sound was actually created in reaction to how I was meditating felt a bit distracting—I wasn't worried about "doing it right" but I was meta-aware of focusing on my breath in a way that is too complex to even attempt to unpack here. I tried to count my breaths, and just as the sound of the calm lake—or was it a pond?—started to emerge, I got a message jolting me out of it: the device needed to be readjusted, even though I had not moved at all.

So I pressed it against my forehead and picked it back up.

I got a few seconds of babbling brook noises in real time, as promised, and in the five-minute span, even a few bird chirps.

According to the app, I had noticed I was distracted and brought myself back to my breath 25 times (which the app calls "Recoveries"), had unleashed those chirping bird noises that signify moments of intense and lasting calm four times, and scored 345 CalmPoints. You receive 1 calm point for every second that your brain is in a natural state of rest, and 3 calm points for every second spent with “deep restful focus on your breath, which the app considers “calm”). You don’t receive any calm points for time spent “active."

Analysis said I was 18% calm. That can’t be right, can it? I feel cool as a cucumber.

On my second day, I was excited to try again. The device once again scanned my brain before I started, and I was told in an introduction (I find out later that these are “skippable”) that training my mind will be like training a puppy, and I should not get angry at the puppy.

Coincidentally, at this moment, my dog hopped up on the couch, rested his tiny paws on my leg, and started cleaning them, which was adorable and very distracting. I felt my mind wandering much more than it had the day before, which sort of was and was not reflected in my results….somehow, the noises of thunderstorms and waves were strong, but a bunch of birds kept flying by.

I managed to get 624 Calm Points, 1 Recovery (yikes, I definitely tried to bring it back to the breathing more often than that!) and….20 Birds?How did I manage all of those birds with the “distractions?” reflected by only 1 Recovery? Analysis said I am 54% calm.

I continued with MUSE until I had banked a total of nine days, and after the first several days, they were no longer consecutive. In fact, some days, I didn't even want to bother with MUSE, just like I didn't want to bother with regular meditation — at one point I waited six days in between sessions. I changed up the soundscape, the length of time, the time of day, and found that there were certain interesting bits of data that made sense. For me, clearly, the birds come out earlier in the day—I got no birds at night, 2 birds in the afternoon, and dozens of birds in the mornings.

My Calm Point and overall Calm Percentages were higher on the days I meditated for consecutive days in a row…no surprise there, since practice makes us closer to perfect, as they say, but now there’s some solid data to support how beneficial a daily practice really is.

What Experts Had to Say

Megan Warner, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice and  an assistant clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine, believes that MUSE could be a useful tool for people who really enjoy incorporating technology into their daily habits and get a sense of satisfaction from seeing their progress displayed in charts and graphs.

She tried it out herself and found the experience to be a positive one, and also sold a couple of them to her patients, who enjoyed using the device as well.

“That said, a major question is, what exactly is being measured when one wears the Muse? Its certainly measuring something — the Interaxon site says that the Muse measures ‘general state’ — but do we know enough about that measurement to understand how this is tied to meditation practice?” she asks. “I may be wrong, but I suspect the jury is still out.”

Warner continued, “One could argue that monitoring the device can make meditation more challenging because checking your progress is hard to resist, and that is a distraction from your focus.”

“Personally, staying in the present moment, device-free, and observing and labeling thoughts in short interval practices and gradually lengthening them is how I've found the most success,” she said.

However, she ultimately feels that using reinforcements to help people stay engaged in practicing certainly never hurts.

Kirsten Broderick, LMSW, a meditation expert, licensed mental health professional, lay Zen monk, and founder of  corporate meditation training firm NorthScale, says that while she thinks MUSE is a great place to start, it kind of misses the point.

“For meditation to work most effectively and efficiently, you want to disconnect from tech and connect to yourself, if even for just five minutes. We sit in stillness to notice ourselves, not be told to notice things, but to build up our own perception of our subtle emotions and thoughts,” she said.

Broderick feels that depending on something outside of yourself, like a device, when trying to regulate and motivate yourself can be a slippery slope.

“I am not against, or in any way negative, about Muse, but it's a crutch. While crutches are imperative to getting you moving, you eventually need to get strong on your own,” she said. “And, for a crutch, it's an expensive one.”

“We live in an empirical and positivist bent scientific age where numbers, results and proof are requirement before taking faith in anything,” Dr. Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, a doctorate in international psychology and Buddhism from The Chicago School, Columbia University and University College London, told me. “In that sense, MUSE helps by providing something tangible for the mind to work with. We are a hypercompetitive results oriented society, unfortunately that may also spill onto spiritual and inward focused practices.”

In her opinion, MUSE serves as a catalyst of intrigue for people with no experience of meditation, encouraging them to give it a try when they see data in real time.

Her husband, Satish Selvanathan, is an investor and entrepreneur who has been meditating for several years. The first time he used the device was in a crowded restaurant, when his friend, who owned the headset, asked him if he thought he could keep calm  “in the midst of a din.”

“I put it on, followed the instructions for 'calibrating' my brainwaves, and began a meditation for five minutes,” he said. “I have been meditating for several years and was able to achieve a high level of almost no mind activity for extended periods of time during the meditation. “

Selvanathan concluded that the device gave accurate feedback, and believes his friend has spent more time meditating  because of the device's capability to "quantify" the meditation.

“Ultimately, I believe the device cannot create the habit or generate a calm mind, but it is a great, fun tool to help people along the journey,” he said. “When utilized together with proper study and practice, I think it can go some way to increasing the number of effective meditators.”

In the end, my meditative life was not at all changed by this device. I did not feel any different when I started than when I finished, and I actually felt a little annoyed at the concept of a feedback loop, where you're looking out for the signal that you're distracted, and then, bam, there it is because you're distracted.

By the time my self-designated trial period for this story was up, I had — gently, of course — abandoned my MUSE back in its box safely on a table and became far more obsessed with the meditation apps I'd been testing for another story. I do like the idea of using technology to help us meditate, rather than totally rejecting it — but MUSE wasn't the tech for me (MUSE did not respond to a request for comment).

What I ultimately learned from trying MUSE was that no matter how expensive a device is, I still have to make a decision to pick it up and use it, a decision that's just as easy (or difficult) as deciding to set a timer for 3 minutes and sit in silence, counting my breath, and making a commitment to bring myself back to it when my mind wanders instead of jumping up to write an email—or an article.