YOU WOULDN’T EXPECT to be selected as first fiddle in the London Symphony Orchestra without putting in some serious hours of practice.
10,000 hours (or around 3 hours per day x 10 years) is the accepted minimum amount of time it takes to really master something — and probably plenty longer for the violin.
It’s the same with meditation.
Not that you’re probably going to be putting in those sort of hours while plugged into your tablet or smart phone, with a piece of technology on your head (like the guys are in this promo shot for the new Muse brain sensing headband).
Nor that most people take up meditation (or a musical instrument come to that) to become a maestro at it.
Most people take it up to find more stillness and calm in the midst of hectic lives. And, as with any new activity, with meditation it’d be brilliant to have a device that could help you get into a regular habit of practising when you first start, plus be some sort of measure and positive reinforcement that you’re on the right track.
With a musical instrument the positive feedback is more obvious by the pleasing (or not) sounds you’re making. With meditation self-regulated guidance is not so easy. Calmness and stillness of mind comes slowly, in increments, over time.
And this is where the Muse brain sensing headband looks like it wants to find its niche. It isn’t marketed as a meditation tool as such (it’s more directed as a means to manage stress and anxiety, help bring focus and improve emotional states) but meditation tool, quite clearly, it is.
And clearly too any effective piece of technology that gives you a readout on your Alpha, Delta, Theta, Gamma and Beta brainwaves would of great interest to many meditators.
It certainly is to this one.
HAPPINESS ON THE BRAIN
And that’s because one of the most useful and groundbreaking studies that’s been done on meditators using state-of-the-art fMRI and EEG scans, was completed on some adepts at the University of Wisconsin by Dr Richard Davidson.
The peer reviewed study was conducted on meditators, including Ven. Matthieu Ricard and Mingyur Rinpoche, who had completed 10,000 hours of practice (or somewhere apparently between 10,000 and 50,000 in Ricard’s case).
The study looked at a number of different types of meditation (including meditating on compassion) and one of the most important findings was that the meditators could voluntarily regulate brain activity through meditation.
One of the most relevant results to us here (in light of the Muse headband) is that the EEG recordings showed a dramatic increase in the gamma activity in the meditators left frontal lobes of their brains while doing compassion meditation.
The left frontal lobe are where feelings like happiness, joy and enthusiasm are located. One of the most obvious implications of this is that selflessly caring for others — in the form of an established practice of compassion meditation — generates happiness in the mind of the practitioner.
The fMRI scans also showed that the part of the brain, the amygdala, which apparently has a lot to do with the intensity of fear and anxiety in our brains, was significantly shrunken in the meditators studied.
It was groundbreaking stuff and indeed a follow up brain scan study of Matthieu Ricard by Dr Paul Ekman of the Human Interaction Laboratory at the University of California achieved results that were “so unprecendented” according to Daniel Goleman in his book Destructive Emotions, “that he was not yet sure he completely understood them himself”.
A MIND LABORATORY AT HOME
Getting such good scientific data from inside the brains of some highly experienced meditators has been a great way to point to the efficacy of meditation to the scientific community and those unfamiliar with it as a practice.
I’m not sure yet of the accuracy of this gizmo compared to the sophisticated ones used in the groundbreaking study — but that it’s now a technology that can be shrunk into a commercially-available headband is an extraordinary thing.
To many beginning meditators there’d be nothing like being able to demonstrate something of what’s going on in the brain, when you’re meditating — when, at least as far as the outside observer is concerned, you’re just sitting down doing nothing.
Plus you’d think this technology might just give you the sort of positive reinforcement and early guidance you need to form a regular habit of meditating.
Similar to the larger and more sophisticated EEG equipment to be found in hospitals and universities, the Muse headband measures the electrical activity in the brain — and is, apparently, used in its own right in over 50 hospitals and labs.
In simple terms we produce more Alpha waves when we’re relaxed and we produce more Delta waves when we’re asleep. Theta waves meanwhile, are associated with very deep relaxation and sleep and Beta and Gamma are associated with thinking and problem solving.
The ability to track these five bands of brain wave would be of deep interest to many meditators.
I’ve been meditating for a number of years (and I’m no expert by any means) but I’m deeply curious to know what the Muse headband reveals and how — when paired with a tablet, smart phone or computer — it provides help to anyone looking to gain a little more stillness and calmness of mind.
I’m skeptical frankly as to the device’s ongoing usefulness to a regular meditator, given that working with a read out in real time and wondering what the state of your mind is, would be a serious stumbling block in trying to let go of discursive thoughts.
But we’ll see — there’s one on its way to me now.
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