Mind control and world domination powers not included

So about a week before I actually got the Muse, Mark messaged me asking if I wanted to try a meditation headset. I’m envisioning something like one of those old gaming headsets (don’t ask why… no idea) maybe headphones and maybe a VR screen or a microphone? Again… no clue. I said sure, why not? Can’t be worse than my last meditation experiment right?

So I met Mark at the gym and he hands me a bag with a box in it and says ‘record everything’ – and that’s the plan! Here’s a little background: I know nothing about this device. I also know very little about meditating.

I’ve done a few different trial sessions with various apps, but it has never been something that I’ve felt particularly good at or did with any kind of regularity. I have a ‘monkey playing with a puppy mind’ … most sessions veer at some point into making lists or a running dialogue for the hilarious novel/sitcom that I will never write about my life (does anyone else do that? Or is it just me?). But let’s start at the beginning.

The Box

Just looking at it, this could be a pair of headphones or a gaming device if it weren’t for the very zen looking woman on the front (I have minimal experience with video games, but to my knowledge, very few use this kind of marketing).

First of all, the box describes it as a “brain sensing headband”??? Comfortingly, one of the features highlighted on the box is ‘safe, trusted technology’. I’m sceptical already.

My first thought is that the headband must provide some form of neural feedback – something like TMS to make your brain meditate better. That was totally wrong. The feedback is audio: Calm weather sounds = calm mind; stormy weather sounds = active mind.

There’s a headband, a micro-USB charging cable, and a quick start guide inside (earphones and a smartphone not included). You also get a little carrying pouch, a bunch of legal info, three hair ties (so you can keep longer hair away from the sensors), and a sticker.

The headband itself looks a little Star Trek – it sits across the forehead and tucks behind the ears, with a sensor above each eye (metal) and one behind each ear (silicone).

The Quick Start guide gives you 4 steps:

  1. Fully charge – My headset was mostly charged right out of the box, but I plugged it in while figuring out the app just for good measure.
  2. Download App – I searched for Muse in the App store and the auto-complete found the right one pretty quickly.
  3. Create Account – So the first prompt is to sign up through Google – I thought that was just way too creepy so I’m creating a new account: email, password, then name, region, handedness, gender, year of birth, and finally confirm.
  4. Set up Device – There is an in app tutorial that helps you pair the headset to the app (pretty simple, press the power button and then select the headset) and then one that helps you adjust the headset to your head (make sure all the sensors are sensing).

The Meditating

After setting everything up, I started the 10 day block of intro sessions. Before you actually start meditating, you get a cue for what to practice during the session (breathing, being forgiving with yourself, etc.) but once the session starts, the vocal cues are replaced by the sound of the landscape you’ve chosen (this is a key difference between Muse and other meditation apps I’ve tried, where there are verbal cues throughout the session).

The default setting is a rainforest, but there are a bunch to choose from (I particularly like the ocean one). Throughout your session, you hear a combination of a few things that vary in loudness/intensity depending on the ‘state’ of your brain:

White noise: this is the baseline, and gets louder when your brain is more ‘active’.

Storm noise: this is scene specific (raindrops for the rainforest, crashing waves for the ocean) and also increases in volume with brain activity.

Birds chirping: contrary to the other cues, these come in when you’ve achieved a ‘calm’ brain state for a certain period of time.

The idea is for the swelling storm and white noises to give you feedback when you need to re-focus on your breath, and the birds are some positive feedback that you’re achieving the desired calm focus of your session.

Great in theory, but how does it work in practice?

I did a 5 minute meditation session every day for the first 10 days – at the end of each session, there was an opportunity to write a ‘journal entry’ (a text box) and select an emoji that fit your experience (sleepy, sad, angry, neutral, happy etc.), then you’re shown the breakdown of your session in ‘brain waves’, the number of ‘birds’ and ‘recoveries’ you achieved, and your total time in a state of ‘calm’.

The readout itself looks like you might expect – a jagged line plotted with brain activity (y axis) over time (x axis). Mine were (and still are) very erratic.

So this is a cool output to look back on, and reflects (as close as I can tell) the audio feedback from the session.

BUT I found the feedback during the session didn’t meet my expectations. Remember when I was talking about that inner dialogue I’ve got going on when I try to meditate? I mentally wrote sections of this article while using Muse to meditate (yes, I know that is not the point of meditating – my mind wandering just happened to be ‘productive’) and was hearing calm waves and birds as feedback.

[Mark’s note: I experienced this, too. The birds seemed to be indicating my focus. If I focused on my breathing, I got birds. If I focused on pizza, I got birds. Of course, both of those are wonderful things towards which I can give my focus.]

Meanwhile, I’ve had parts of sessions where I am calm, focused on my breath, with a clear mind, and the wind is roaring and waves are crashing in the audio feedback.

Maybe there is something I’m missing, but that is still a very frustrating/confusing part of this process.

The other thing I’ve noticed, is that sometimes I use the act of putting on the headband as a proxy for actually trying. I’ve put the headband on, started a session, and sat until the chime sounded at the end of my 5 minutes. Check. Meditation done. But I know I have had a number of sessions where my heart wasn’t in it, and a handful where I really wasn’t trying at all.

The Take Aways

So, what’s the verdict?

  • I like the fact you get feedback and can log and track your sessions (this is the data nerd in me) BUT getting used to the feedback and learning to use it effectively takes time
  • I like having something to put on – it clearly defines ‘meditation time’ from ‘other time’

But this experiment has also left me with a bunch of questions:

Why did they choose these target regions? Are they targeting the DMN? What are the implications if they are?

Is this actually helping me learn to meditate? Or am I using the feedback as a crutch? Is meditating with Muse having any of the beneficial impacts on my life that meditating is claimed to have? Or is it just adding another layer of stress to my life, trying to keep my meditation streak?

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