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Can EEG Headband Devices Like Muse Help Us Become Better Meditators And More Mindful?
From:
Cody McLain Cody McLain
Austin , TX
Friday, June 28, 2019

 

With new gadgets constantly flooding the market, promising to tell you everything from your heart rate to how many calories you've burned, it's about time that a similar device finally exists for your brain.

Meet the Muse; simply put the band around your head, and it will measure the electrical activity in your brain. This info can help you achieve a greater sense of mindfulness and focus in all aspects of your daily life.

According to Muse, using the device for just 3 minutes a day will help you improve focus and concentration. They go on to make claims, promising it will improve your response to stress, increase self-control, benefit your emotional state, and help you form habits (which habits exactly is unclear).

Are these just hollow claims, or is there something to it? I wanted to find out, so I  I consulted 2 neuroscientists and 2 Meditation practitioners to answer some of the fundamental questions of meditation and the potential effectiveness of a device like Muse.

So how does Muse work?

Muse is simply a  headband with EEG sensors on the front. Putting the device around your head and opening up the app on your iPhone or Android device will show a dashboard to start a new session or view your previous session data. The app works on the principle of setting a weekly goal to help motivate you to complete the sessions daily.

On the face of it, you simply select how long your session is, difficulty, and then click start. It'll run a quick test to ensure the sensors are connected and then start asking you a few questions for around 30 seconds.

Muse says that this 30-second pre-session test is to help it gauge the electrical activity of your brain before each session. It helps them to set a baseline for that day since each day can be different. Muse uses these questions to calibrate itself to establish a baseline for the day since the electrical activity of your brain can vary from day to day (at least they claim).

After the calibration, the session starts and you're asked to focus on your breathing. This is a form of Zazen Meditation where each breath in and out is counted. The device works based on a form of audio-feedback. If your mind is calm you'll just hear the ocean gently washing ashore. However, the more electrical activity in your brain, you'll hear a wind that can become pretty strong depending on what you're thinking about. The basic idea is that the audio-feedback will remind you that you're thinking or are distracted so you can come back to a more meditative state.

If you stay focused for an extended period of time you'll hear birds chirping in the background. It's nice to get that feedback until the bird chirp causes an extra bout of awareness and then the storm comes rolling in.

At the end of the session, you're presented with a varying amount of data about your calm-neutral-active state, how many points you received, and any awards you received compared to other sessions.

What is Muse supposed to do exactly?

Meditation, while once dismissed as hippy nonsense, has been gaining in popularity. Its basic tenant is that mindfulness has a number of benefits in one's life, which is the same principle that the Muse operates on. 

Meditation helps one be more mindful throughout their day. By mindfulness, I mean recognizing unconscious actions and environmental cues influence our actions. For example, before started meditating I never realized that when sorting through my email, if I hit an email that would take a lot of thought or effort I would immediately get up and go to the kitchen to grab a snack. The idea behind mindfulness is that while I look at that email and am about to get up, I'll realize what I'm doing and be able to stop myself from acting on impulse(ie: enhanced focus since you're more aware of the things you do on a daily basis).

Many people incorrectly assume that meditation entails not thinking about anything and having a blank mind. While some form of meditation attempts this, it is not really realistic for most people. The most popular form of meditation is to try to focus on only 1 thing (object, thought, feeling, or emotion), a practice which has a lot of benefits in daily life.

Our brains are easily distracted, and even while Meditating it is easy for our thoughts to suddenly fly off in different directions. The goal is to be mindful of when focusing on breathing has suddenly become thinking about tomorrow's meeting or what to have for lunch. By being mindful, you can notice when this happens and refocus.

I personally consider Muse to be a handicapped version of meditation. I say this because of the goals of Meditation is recognizing them you have gone off the rails, and having the discipline to bring yourself back. Muse attempts to help you with this through EEG monitoring, which can recognize a change in brain activity and alert you.

Where is the storm though when we constantly check our email or unknowingly get lost in Facebook or Reddit for an hour?

Do you see the problem?

The real question is whether an external device really helps you be more internally mindful. Is the Muse an assistant, or is it just a (not very) cheap substitute?

If we're outsourcing our mindfulness to an external device, how does that translate to us becoming more mindful on our own without it? If Meditation is all about becoming self-aware, does it make sense to think that using a gadget is going to help us accomplish this? (It's possible that if Muse made a 2nd device that you could wear throughout the day, it might be able to detect when we lose our focus and then remind us. However, that brings on new concerns about having a 24/7 mindfulness reminder. We might as well pay somebody to watch over our shoulder to help us stay on track).

My Personal Experience

I've been using the Muse daily for about 2 months now, and before that, I've been practicing Zazen meditation for a little under a year. Since starting meditating I'd like to think I've noticed increased attention and mindfulness throughout the day, and by mindful I mean I am more in control of my impulses and have greater self-control because I'm less automated. 

Meditation has helped me build more positive habits and routines, so I was excited to try Muse, as there is nothing I love better than having more data. I'm already a fan of WellnessFX where I can get my blood drawn and see my own health, and the thought of also having EEG data on my brain seemed like a miracle. While I  was looking forward to seeing the data, that excitement was muted as the app was plagued with constant crashes, and in many instances lost session data. With that aside, since I already had a routine of practicing 20 minutes of meditation daily it wasn't too difficult to substitute my regular meditation with Muse. For those not already practicing meditation, utilizing this device on a daily basis might not be easy.  Creating a new habit is difficult and will take some commitment. I imagine that is why Muse states that you only need 3 minutes a day with the device.

With all of that said, I decided to give Muse a fair shot to convince me, so I emailed them with some of my concerns. Pasted below is their response:

What research or evidence have you guys come across that indicates a connection between EEG Activity and Mindfulness? How does Muse teach people to associate thunderstorms with a corrective action to stop thinking and go back to counting one's breath?

The way Muse teaches users the association between salient wind sounds and re-focusing on the breath is simply by instruction prior to the exercises. We designed our exercises in cooperation with experienced teachers and practitioners of mindfulness, and we base the exercise you learn in CALM on focused attention training.
When people learn focused attention training (or meditation or mindfulness training) without supportive technology like Muse, there is usually a teacher or an audio tape regularly reminding the student to stay focused on their breath. Over time, the student needs fewer and fewer reminders. The idea is that the wind sounds that you hear in Calm have the same function while being especially non-intrusive.

How does hearing a thunderstorm while concentrating on your breathing have any sort of correlation to a more conscientious life? 

Attention-related skills acquired through mindfulness are actually transferable to day-to-day activities. Research supports the idea that attention is improved (Lippelt et al, 2014) and decreases in working memory capacity can be prevented (Jha & Stanley, 2010) through meditation practice. These benefits are observable in individuals who simply practice meditation without specific training to apply the mindset to other activities. The discipline of noticing your mind wandering and consciously returning your focus turns out to have a lot of benefits
Relevant research on brain activity and meditation has been reviewed for instance by Cahn & Polich (2006) have surveyed relevant research on brain activity and meditation, and indicate that meditation is generally associated with increases in alpha and theta activity. Broboszcz & Delorme (2011) studied neural correlates of mind wandering vs. focused attention and found systematic differences in EEG frequency band powers.

Now, to be honest, I don't think they really answered my questions, just sort of danced around it and provided a few studies on the effects of meditation—which, by the way, isn't really on the table here. Neither myself nor very many scientists would refute the benefits of meditation and its effect on your brain.

What a Neuroscientist thinks

Intrigued by their response, I decided to contact a neuroscientist friend (who wished to remain anonymous) for his opinion on the Muse.

They state on their website that you can have greater awareness, self-control, motivation, and concentration throughout the day with as little of a 3-minute session. Do you feel this is an accurate statement?

I do not think that three minutes of anything a day could significantly alter your awareness, self-control, motivation, etc.

Is there any research to indicate that an EEG device such as Muse can actually lead to any such benefits they claim on their website?

I haven't heard of any research with an EEG device being used in this way.

There have been previous studies on the effectiveness of meditation. Without any studies done on the Muse device, what are your thoughts on the potential effectiveness of the device when compared to regular meditation?

In short - I can't say for sure. My understanding of the way that meditation helps is that it silences disparate parts of your brain which are very active (and operating alone) to less active and allowing your mind to operate in a more holistic manner. Similar to the way that when you sleep, you digest the information from the day (short activity) into your mind to make broad and not obviously related logical connections and obtain a deeper understanding of the events. I don't think that you would be able to achieve this while being engaged in a task - that seems to defeat the purpose. But, you might be able to achieve a different effect and orient your whole state of mind towards a specific activity. There would obviously be less of a signal difference: with meditation, you are comparing a calm mind state to a distracted/active one - but with this, you are comparing active vs a different type of activity.

Regular meditation has us being self-aware in recognizing that we are off focus and we bring ourselves back to baseline. Would you say that Muse is essentially a sort of handicapped version of Meditation in that you're externalizing this awareness to the device? Essentially allowing it to be the one that reminds you that you're off track instead of recognizing this on your own.

That is my interpretation as well.

Do you think that despite this the device might still be just as effective or more effective in teaching one to be more mindful when compared to meditation alone?

I think that this device might be able to detect when you are dazing off / day-dreaming, or when you have dis-engaged yourself from actively working on a task. Therefore, you could teach yourself to stay engaged and stay productive. Is the science behind the device plausible? Yes. But the extent to which it is practically effective will require the test of time.

What Meditation Practitioners Think

For this, I contacted "Jon" who trained for a number of years as Buddhist monk and is also the founder of Meditationshift, a course that combines the concepts from Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and Buddhist and Stoic philosophy.

I asked him what he thought of the potential benefits of such a device, and here was his reply:

 I can't speak to the device and it's functionality/effectiveness - I take them at their word that it does what it says unless proven otherwise. So, from that perspective, it may be a fabulous product!
When it comes to meditation, however, I am very much a purist. I don't believe that you need outside aids/devices to meditate. In fact, if you depend on an app, a guided meditation from video/audio, or a device like this, it makes it easier to find an excuse not to meditate ("Oh, I don't have my computer...or my phone is almost dead...or I don't have that device...so, I'll just meditate later/tomorrow!).
Instead, I am a firm believer that you need to be able to meditate anywhere and anytime, with just yourself! I believe in basic instructions:  (1) focus on the breath/a mantra, (2) when you find that your mind has wandered, simply return to your point of focus, and (3) repeat over and over and over. Cultivate awareness of your mind-made activity, its temporary nature, and learn to observe while not getting swept away by it.
In short, you don't need an aid that will become a crutch and an excuse. Just do it - anytime, anywhere. And do it consistently - consistency is key, because it will allow you to bring mindfulness to your daily activities when you aren't meditating.

He brings up some very good objections. Consistency and not method is the true determiner of success for mindfulness. If Muse helps one meditate more often then perhaps it might be worth the cost.

Giving credit where it's due

Now with everything above aside, I must give Interaxon (the company behind Muse) credit where it's due. They took EEG technology and brought it down to a consumer level price. They've gone through extraordinary levels of testing and data analysis in order to interpret the raw data from our brains and funnel it through an incredibly simple app that can be used by anyone.

They state the app can help train your brain for any number of things. While I do not doubt there is some level of validity to that, it has yet been shown in any scientific studies the effectiveness of external feedback to enhancing mindfulness.

Nearly all the reviews I can find on the Muse are positive and extremely subjective. It's hard to know whether the reviewers used the app for more than a day or whether Muse asked them to write it to promote the product. In a few reviews, the author claims to have perceived benefits of the device with only a few minutes a day. Based on the responses I received from a meditation practitioner and neuroscientist, I'm inclined to be unconvinced that this is true. To state that you feel more concentrated after using the device is a pretty bold claim. For all we know, feeling like you're more concentrated is no better than taking a placebo pill and saying you feel happier.

The brain works in mysterious ways, most of which we haven't even come close to understanding. The Muse device is great in that it brings us closer to interpreting this data; however, there is a lack of scientific evidence and studies currently to back up the claims that Muse makes on their website.

Now, whether or not you should buy it, I'll leave that up to you. In my opinion, I think Muse is essentially a handicap for meditation. Do you need it to be more focused, concentrated, etc..? Probably not. I've read enough books about meditation to know that not even 20 minutes of daily meditation will reverse all the distractions we get in our day-to-day lives. So the thought of achieving greater concentration and focus from a 3 minute Muse session sounds almost absurd in comparison.

In the end, I returned my Muse for a refund. I realized that Buddhist Monks have been achieving a greater sense of mindfulness with plain old meditation for thousands of years without such devices. Whether or not the device actually helps in this regard is mute, as it really comes down to having a daily habit. If Muse helps you meditate for 20 minutes a day, then fantastic and it is probably worth it. Then again, if you buy it and expect that using it sporadically or only 3 minutes a day is going to make a difference, then think again.

With all that aside, it's still a cool piece of tech, and if anything, hopefully, it will pave the path for more improved and helpful devices in the future.

 
Cody McLain
Austin, TX
(512) 609-0067
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