THE BRAIN SENSING headband, I mentioned recently, arrived a week ago. Since then it’s been on my head at least a couple of sessions per day.
Much as it’s fascinating and fun, to be frank it’s already clear that the thing is not a keeper. Actually that’s not entirely true: keep it and it’ll likely end up forgotten after a few weeks of obsessive use were it not for the fact I’m keeping one eye on the 30-day money back guarantee.
Not that it’s not a sharp piece of design and technology — it is — it’s just not something I can see lasting me beyond the usual spike of enthusiasm some of us have for new technology. Plus there’s the matter of the US$299 plus postage price tag.
Really it was naive to expect more from this piece of techno wizardry. The main problem is I hoped the brainwave data it fed (to an accompanying app via Bluetooth) was going to be a little more in-depth and sophisticated.
This you can probably mark down as wishful thinking, on my part, given that the Muse brain sensing headband has such a mainstream pitch.
The Muse headband isn’t marketed as anything more than a device to increase focus, boost calmness and help handle stress — through some meditative techniques, which they choose to call “focused attention training”.
Tweeting birds and gentle tides
Out of the box it’s charged and ready to go and, once you’ve downloaded the app for your smart phone or tablet, you’re in business.
The headband has a series of sensors at the forehead and just behind the ears — which are designed to pick up the brain’s Alpha, Delta, Theta, Gamma and Beta waves.
Once you’ve made sure the connection to the waves is working — via a series of four colour bars on the app, which go solid once you’ve made some fine adjustments to how the band sits on your head — the readers are “calibrated”.
To do this you’re asked to think of three lists of things. This could be colours, writers, fruit, cities, animals, tools, vegetables … the subjects change each time, but the questions are asked to get you thinking before every session (it takes only a minute) to establish a base level for your “active” brain.
Then the session begins.
You can set the length of each session for either three, five, seven, 12, 20 minutes, or, to a custom length in minute increments (with this the latest app version just released), up to an hour.
Once your session begins the idea is to begin to meditate via single pointed concentration or meditation (the “focused attention training”). In this case focusing on either counting the breath or sensation of the breath. The app gives you audio feedback via the soothing tones of gentle rain or a gentle tide (you can choose) as to how “calm” your mind is.
If your brain is active the wind gets up and the tide or rain get slightly more intense; if you achieve more calmness, then the wind drops, the rain or tide more soothing and — if you’re really calm — birds quietly tweet.
Once your session is complete the app gives you a read out on your relative calm. You’re also given points, the number of tweeting birds you achieved, together with a series of awards. Calmness is given as a percentage to three comparative brain states: active, neutral and calm.
Distraction or focus?
To anyone who has any experience of meditation, the idea of trying to settle into single pointed concentration while consciously monitoring sounds telling you how you’re doing — doesn’t seem the best strategy for settling the mind (ie if you’re following thoughts of how relatively calm you are, then you’re clearly not maintaining a one-pointed focus).
Happily, for anyone who’s already an established meditator, you can just turn the volume off. Then again if you’ve already established a meditation habit, then you’re not likely to be looking to grab one of these. Meanwhile for the beginner meditator /calm-seeker/focus-pursuer getting the feedback from the headband is clearly one of the key reasons for using it in the first place.
And that’s because, as anyone who has meditated knows, settling into one-pointed concentration on an object (such as the sensation of the breath, a candle, a mantra) is not as straightforward as it first sounds.
Our ordinary minds are untamed beasts, so a key part of the basic process is continually bringing your mind back to watching the breath or counting the breath — and this is where the sounds of the rain of the tide come in.
For Muse users they serve as an additional reminder to bring your attention back to your breath — and away from the myriad other thoughts that inevitably rise as you sit and attempt to settle the mind.
Presumably the point is that for anyone who’s looking to train their brain to become calmer or more focused — or as a means to encourage and reward regular meditation using the device — the sounds soon become aural wallpaper and possibly serve as a trigger to slip into a calmer state.
All up I found it a thoroughly strange (and addictive) business competing to see if you can beat your own personal “calm” record. Combining competition and calmness seems like a counterintuitive cocktail of ideas, but if that’s what it takes for some people to start meditating that’s not a bad thing.
There’s no hiding the fact that developing a regular meditative practice takes time and commitment and for anyone finding it hard to get started, maybe this is one way to do it. Similarly for anyone who’s looking for a new way to manage stress or has difficulty in calming down their overactive brain it’s better than hitting the bottle.
For the established meditators however you’d have to say it has limited appeal beyond satisfying a curiosity as to how your own inner experience meditating translates to brain activity and relative “calmness”.
Beyond that the Muse headband is another piece of tangible proof that the exciting research that’s being done into the benefits of meditation and mind training are having an impact on mainstream society.
Indeed there’s now been countless studies completed. A recent Harvard study for instance showed that an eight-week mindfulness meditation program caused “measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress”; in other research published this year it was shown that long-term meditation had “potential age-defying effects” on the brain.
Meanwhile of course the profoundest, experiential, cutting edge work has been undertaken for millennia by practitioners of the contemplative sciences in many spiritual and philosophical traditions.
Modern science is just beginning to come to the party, in other words, just as basic meditation and mindfulness techniques are becoming increasingly mainstream and increasingly commodified. And here’s the firm evidence: there’s now a successful gadget you can purchase to help you get started.