Brain Sensing Tech Support to Mindfulness – The Muse Review
Do you want to control your brain? The Muse brain sensing headband promises to help you get the most out of your meditation practice by giving you real-time biofeedback about what’s going on in your mind. It’s not some dystopian headset trying to alter your brain. Instead, its makers, the InteraXon team, want to train you to modify it yourself by knowing your brain activity better. Here you find our experience with the headband – even the comparison for the early and latest versions: our big fat Muse review.
Measuring brainwave activity? Really? How?
For answering that question, we have to introduce you the electroencephalogram or EEG (yes, we’ll stay at the latter). An EEG is a method that records the electrical activity in the brain using electrodes attached externally to the scalp. It’s an effective way to know what’s going on under your perfectly combed hair as brain cells “communicate via electrical impulses and are active all the time” — even while sleeping. In 1924, Hans Berger recorded the first human EEG measuring the faint electrical signals that brains emit while thinking, sleeping, moving, or meditating. Since then, being able to accurately and comfortably measure EEG even at home has been the focus of many experts and companies, although failure was more frequent than success.
A refreshing exception is the company behind the brain sensing headband, Muse, the Canadian InteraXon. One of the founders, Ariel Garten, is the perfect example of how an interdisciplinary background of neuroscience, fashion design, and psychotherapy can help solve global problems and develop innovative solutions. After launching a clothing line in high school, and then open Toronto Fashion Week with her own line, she worked in the science lab of Professor Steve Mann, pioneer of cybernetics and wearable computers. There, Garten and her colleagues got the idea of using brain activity to trigger musical playback. Not long after, she co-founded InteraXon with Trevor Colemen and Chris Aimone and went on to develop Muse, the brain–sensing headband.
From a levitating chair onto stable business grounds
Can you believe that an early prototype of the Muse headband involved a levitating chair? The seating would rise toward the ceiling accompanied by a satisfying sound effect if the user managed to slip into a state of relaxation by wearing the EEG headband.
Although the chair did not make it into its final offerings, in 2012, the Muse team finished a successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign raising almost $300,000, surpassing its original goal of $150,000. It’s no wonder it received such as a strong backing: it might have potential for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder known as ADHD; it has a potential benefit for epilepsy; could teach people to focus attention, decrease pain, increase cognitive function, emotional intelligence, memory, and athletic performance; and decrease stress and depression.
On the 1st of May, 2014, they started shipping Muse to thousands and thousands of individuals who want to measure their brain waves at home. The Medical Futurist was indeed interested in getting one – it was actually one of the first devices that Dr. Meskó tested. Recently, the company sent their latest version of the sleek headband so he could compare how it developed over the years.
How does the Muse headband work?
Neurologists are generally critical of applications, such as the Muse and warn about the risk of overstating what these devices can do. However, the brain sensing headband fulfils its promises – it tracks brainwaves to support meditation. The device has seven sensors – two on the forehead, two SmartSense conductive rubber ear sensors and three reference sensors – designed to detect and measure brain activity through EEG. These sensors detect the spontaneous activity of neurons that generate electrical frequencies. When they’re done, the measurements can be accessed on a tablet or smartphone via Bluetooth.
One of the most critical concern is the sensitivity of the gadget. As EEG is measured in microvolts compared to the thousand times more millivolts of ECG, muscle noise can obscure the tracing. Thus, the company helps users how to improve the receptiveness of the sensors: the wearer should remove any make-up and should take care of how to put on the headband, the pads of the sensors should be made wet carefully, or they don’t recommend blinking or chewing on a gum – as they all could worsen the signal.
However, if you can make sure that the Muse receives the brainwaves appropriately, you will get real-time feedback with the help of its app whether or not your mind is too active. In case you have an army of thoughts crossing each other in your brain, the headband will give you advice on how to clear your thoughts.
Dr. Meskó’s experiences with the previous version of Muse
The brain sensing headband was one of the first digital devices that Dr. Meskó used for measuring his health parameters at home. The latest version of the Muse works fairly similar to the original one, but it’s more professional.
The goal of the Muse headband has always been to improve meditation through technology. When Dr. Meskó started to use it, he discovered that when he meditates, his brain is hyperactive: he cannot calm down, cannot relax – mindfulness was out of the question. At the first session, the real-life feedback helped him identify the problem, and he could also figure out what he needs for meditation. For example, how counterproductive is when he stresses about not being able to relax instead of just letting things go.
When he used the previous model, the routine was the following: he put the Muse headset on, completed the breathing exercises to the sound of waves (neutral), storms (bad) and tweeting birds (good) which indicate how focused and calm he was. If his mind was too active, the Muse gave him feedback to help him clear his thoughts. After many months of using the Muse, he even decided to continue the meditation sessions without its help, but the immediate feedback taught him when he’s genuinely relaxed, and it was useful to listen to the brain activities in real-time.
The Medical Futurist and his newest Muse
The latest version of the Muse is very similar to the previous one. It’s well-designed, user-friendly and works according to the expectations. At first, the user has to adjust the sensors, then the measurement could be started. The process itself is better than before as the user had to think about a lot of things for one minute – for examples of different types of cars. Now, you only have to sit there with your eyes closed.
Based on the strength of the signal, the headband indicates within a couple of around 30 seconds whether the user put on the device in the right manner. For that short amount of time, you have to sit there – and relax.
That’s when the magic called meditation begins. You can select the length and the type of the session: whether you want to travel virtually to a calming beach scene, to listen to urban beats or find yourself in a desert. The background noise will be proportional to your brain activity, which is divided into three categories: calm, neutral and active – and will disappear slowly as your meditation progresses. The ultimate goal is, of course, to reach the state of “calmness” in the long run. When Dr. Meskó starts hearing the sound of chirping birds, he knows that he managed to achieve an optimal state for the time being.
Dr. Meskó also tried to trick the system. When he started to think about his daily routine and tasks for the coming weeks, his final analysis about that session generated a peak exactly there. The background noise also mirrored the changes in his thinking. It’s truly mind-boggling.
A fine tool for learning how to meditate
After you finish the session, you will receive a detailed analysis. You can see the change in your brain activity based on various graphs, you can earn points based on how well you managed to meditate. These tactics of gamification help Dr. Meskó use the device every day – which is a significant novelty compared to the previous version of the headband. Another genuinely positive change is the improvement of the strength of the signal, as earlier every movement, every blink of the eye could imbalance the operation of the system.
Dr. Meskó believes the use of the Muse headband is a great strategy to learn how to meditate. Without real-time, immediate help and having an idea about “what’s going on in your brain”, it is challenging to figure out what you personally need for the best meditation session. However, he concluded that similarly how he stopped using the previous version of the Muse after Dr. Meskó learned how to meditate well, he would do the same with the newest one as well. He would use the device only to re-measure his brain activity from time to time – as for reaching mindfulness in the end, you will not need anything.
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