When I was in third grade, I couldn’t sit still in class and would pop up out of my tiny wooden chair like a jack-in-in the box. My teacher would stare at me, perplexed and then ask me to take may seat. I did and then minutes later was back up out of my chair. At the time, she said it was like I had ants in my pants, a rather horrifying mental image if you think about it.
I’ve gotten better at sitting, but still stink at being still. If I’m not deeply engaged in some mental activity, like writing or reading, I usually want to move. This was all I could think as I recently test-drove the new Muse 2 ($249) brain-sensing headband mediation device.
It’s the follow-up to the original Muse, a headband that uses the electrical signals in your brain to offer you aural feedback on your state of mind. A storm indicated a busy mind, tranquil forest sounds, a quiet one. The new Muse 2 ups the ante to tracking your heart, breathing, mind, and body, and helping you master all of them, through steady, constant bio feedback, delivered from the headband, to your Bluetooth connected smartphone or tablet, and back out to the headphones of your choice that your wear over your ears.
Meditations on a Headband
For the introduction and demo event, Muse set up a series of Muse test stations complete with the Muse 2 headband, a tablet, and headphones. They were on low tables around which sat cushions and odd, legless chair/cushions. I lowered myself uncomfortably into one of those.
I paired the headset with the still-in-beta app (it was easy, the app discovers the headband), placed the Muse 2 on my head and the headphones over my ears. Like the original Muse, this somewhat redesigned and adjustable model wraps around the front of your head. There’s the thin band that rests against your forehead, pressing copper electrodes against your skin, along with a new heart rate sensor. At the end of each side of the band is a larger section that rests just behind each ear. Wearing it looks odd (especially if you’re bald), but it’s not uncomfortable.
Once I had the band properly seated on my head, the system spent a minute or so calibrating while the app told me to relax and just “be.”
Next, I followed the instructions to start the Body meditation, which in this demo was using both the image and sounds of a wind-chime to help me track my own body activity and, I guess, see if I could calm it.
Through the headset, the app told me to close my eyes and focus on my breathing. I squirmed on the uncomfortable mat/seat, wishing I had chosen a large cushion instead, and closed my eyes.
The Muse app told me I could control the chimes with my movement and mind. I tried swaying but was unsure if it had any effect. I was getting antsy waiting for something to happen. When I opened my eyes, I saw I had more than two minutes left on this session. There was no way I was trying this for another two minutes. I cancelled the session.
A woman with long dark hair and a soothing voice knelt down next to me. “How’s it going?” she asked and then introduced herself as Ariel Garten, Co-Founder and Chief Evangelist for Muse.
She asked me which routine I ran, and I pointed out the Body session. That’s the entry point, she told me. I admitted that I stopped it early. “I’m bad at meditation,” I explained. “I can’t stand sitting still. I have to move. I’ve been like this my whole life. It’s one reason I’m skinny.”
Garten laughed, held out at thin arm and said we’re the same. Garten, who is a neuroscientist and therapists said that her studies of the brain led her to Muse and that meditation is not about doing nothing. It’s about focus and the ability to return to that focus despite distractions. Mediation is not nothing, it’s focused activity.
Later, Muse Co-founder and CTO Chris Aimone reiterated that thought, explaining that Muse is specifically designed to give you constant feedback about your meditation, helping you regain attention through sounds.
Aimone then talked about one of my biggest issues with meditation: The focus on breathing. Breathing is an autonomous process; you don’t think “breathe in…breathe out,” but that’s what meditation and Muse 2 asks you to do, at least some of the time. The minute I start thinking about how I breathe, I start panicking that I’ll stop or forget to take that next breath. It turns out that Aimone had the same issue, that anticipation of the sensation of breathing, which can then get you lost in thoughts about the act of breathing and of meditating.
To show us how to counter that and focus on the structure of breathing, Aimone led the entire room in a short mediation without wearing the Muse 2. Again, everyone was asked to close their eyes.
I’ll admit, I did this for 20 seconds before I opened one eye and looked around. Seated on the floor in front of me with almost a dozen other people, all with their eyes closed, hands resting in their laps. The looked calm, happy. I was just uncomfortable.
After that session, I returned to test-driving Muse 2. There were three other meditation styles to try: breath, heart, and mind.
For breathing, the app plays weather sounds that are synced to your breathing, Labored or rapid breathing makes it rain harder and calm, measured breathing makes the rain stop and birds chirp.
Earlier Garten had showed me how to cut the meditations down to one minute, which meant I was done with the breathing meditation pretty quickly. For each meditation exercise, you get calm points, recoveries, and birds, which are like points, too. Honestly, it’s hard to understand how they tally these ratings, but I was pleased to see a relatively flat breathing fever chart and, below that, 156 points and nine birds. I got zero recoveries.
For the Mind meditation, I listened as Muse app told me the Muse 2 headband was “listening to your brain signals.” I tried to calm my brain, but all I could think about was if other people were staring at me.
Finally, I tried the heat meditation. As I mentioned, there’s now a heart rate monitor in the Muse 2 headband. The app uses that to synchronize a drum beat with the actual beats of your heart. First, I heard a low, steady, but slightly elevated beat. I tried to slow my breathing to calm down and, maybe, slow the drum beat.
Here, I underperformed, gaining just 60 Muse points, 0 recoveries and only 2 birds. My heartrate looked pretty flat on the graph, though the actual rate isn’t spelled out. I could see it was a good tick above 50 bpm, but that was it.
I took off the Muse 2 headband and headphone and jumped up, happy, as always, to be standing and moving again. I didn’t walk out of the Muse 2 demo a meditation convert, but of course, that’s not the point. Meditation is a skill that you can learn through practice and, as Muse sees it, with a constant feedback loop. The new Muse 2 simply adds more feedback tools to that meditation toolbelt, which I think those inclined to meditate will love.