Can EEG Headsets Supercharge Your Brain?
New consumer-level devices provide an opportunity to experiment with brain wave biofeedback
A few years ago, something remarkable happened to me. I had just finished a 1.5-hour kung-fu class. As I grabbed my bag and started walking to the car, I started to think about some Google ad campaigns I was running for my clients.
At this point, it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought about work for the entire class. I had been 100% focused and in-the-moment. This was the first time that had ever happened before.
For the past two weeks, I had been experimenting with something new and different: an EEG headset device called Versus. Using the headset in combination with a companion iPad app, I had been training my brain to relax more readily and focus more effectively. Apparently, it was paying off.
Over the past decade, EEG headsets have gone from being strictly DIY gizmos for hardcore biohackers to a niche but rapidly-growing market with annual sales in the tens of millions of dollars.
According to their makers, EEG headsets can make meditation easy, improve mental acuity, concentration and sleep management, and enable lucid dreaming. And as you’ll see, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the possible applications.
But do EEG headsets really live up to their promise? First, let’s look at how they work.
The Science of Brain Waves
EEG stands for electroencephalography. It is a technique for measuring and recording brain waves — electromagnetic activity in the brain — and is used (among other things) to diagnose epilepsy, stroke, encephalopathy, and brain death.
More importantly for our purposes, EEG can also be used to diagnose sleep disorders, to measure the depth of anesthesia, and to analyze one’s overall level of neurological arousal. In other words, by identifying your brain waves, you can see how relaxed, focused, or excited you are.
In general, higher-frequency brain waves correspond to higher levels of mental arousal. The five main types of brain waves are as follows:
- Delta waves — up to 4 Hz. Primarily associated with deep sleep.
- Theta waves — 4–7 Hz. Associated with drowsiness, sleep, and deep meditation, and sometimes also with very relaxed and creative states.
- Alpha waves — 7–13 Hz. Associated with relaxed wakefulness and light meditative states. Also sometimes associated with a state of relaxed focus or productivity; however, alpha waves occur far more readily when the eyes are closed.
- Beta waves — 13–30 Hz. Associated with heightened arousal, movement, and anxiety.
- Gamma waves — 30–100 Hz. More rarely seen, gamma waves are believed to play a role in binding neurons together into networks.
It should be noted that the full function of brain waves is still not fully understood. However, there are several ways in which using EEG headsets for neurofeedback could be potentially useful:
- Helping people with anxiety to relax, dropping down from a beta to an alpha state.
- Helping people beat feelings of drowsiness, rising from a theta to an alpha state.
- Helping people relax and learn to fall asleep on command, dropping down to a low theta state.
EEG headsets generally only deal with theta, alpha, and beta waves, since delta waves are not normally produced while awake, and gamma waves are not known to be associated with any particular mental state (and are also still very poorly understood in general).
So, in principle, the use of EEG as a sort of biofeedback to aid with meditation and similar activities has a sound theoretical basis. In fact, there is also research to support the idea of the association between altering one’s brain waves and altering one’s mental state.
It has been shown that a high occurrence of beta waves is associated with anxiety.
Curiously, ADHD is associated with an excess of slower brain waves, and improvements in ADHD symptoms are associated with more alpha and beta — and fewer theta — waves. While this may sound counterintuitive, it fits with the fact that ADHD can be relieved by amphetamines. People with ADHD have “drowsy brains,” yet exhibit paradoxically hyperactive behavior as a result.
Another study found that an increase in alpha and theta waves is associated with decreased anxiety.
While EEG has occasionally been used for this sort of treatment in clinical settings, this hasn’t seen widespread adoption due to the high cost, difficulty of using medical EEG systems, and the need for trained staff to operate them.
EEG headsets aim to be cheaper, more portable, and simpler to use than EEG systems. As you’ll see, they largely succeed at these goals, albeit not without major trade-offs.
Technical Challenges With EEG Headsets
The latest medical EEG systems are so powerful that one group of researchers was able to use them to effectively transfer thoughts from one person’s head to another’s. Commercial headset devices are nowhere near as powerful, although they might be in 20–30 more years.
EEG headsets require less physical prep than EEG systems. Traditional medical EEG systems work by placing a large number of electrodes on the scalp with a conductive gel or paste. As such, hair can get in the way, and patients sometimes have their heads shaved. However, newer EEG systems are often sensitive enough that this isn’t necessary, but at the very least they still require placing electrodes on the scalp and soaking the patient’s hair with gel. Additionally, the scalp is typically abraded to remove dead skin cells, which would impede electrical conduction.
Needless to say, the whole process is unpleasant, not to mention lengthy and labor-intensive. EEG headsets don’t require skin abrasion (although it would still help) and, depending on the model, they either don’t use gel at all, or only use a very small amount.
Another consideration is the number and placement of electrodes. Medical EEG systems have a large number of electrodes placed by hand all over the head. By contrast, EEG headsets use a smaller number of electrodes, and they’re not placed by hand. Instead, the headset has them in set locations, with the headset itself being somewhat flexible and adjustable to accommodate different people’s heads.
As you can see from the above photos, the headsets clearly don’t achieve the same level of coverage as professional EEG systems. They’re obviously much quicker to put on and easier to use, but between the inferior coverage and lack of skin abrasion and gel, there’s going to be a big loss of signal quality.
The number of electrodes in a headset also limits the number of EEG “channels” the headset can receive. Since the brain has many different brain waves going on at any given time, having more electrodes with greater coverage — and therefore more channels — allows an EEG to more fully capture the entirety of the brain’s electrical activity.
Another consideration is that EEG devices can easily be subject to interference from outside electrical signals. Medical EEGs are usually performed in a shielded room to minimize interference, which isn’t an option for typical headset users.
Movement (particularly head movement) will also cause interference, as the electrical activity in the muscles will be mistaken for brain activity. Note that this issue affects medical EEGs just as much as commercial headsets.
The other big difference between medical EEG systems and consumer headsets has to do with how the EEG data is presented. Here’s what a medical EEG readout looks like:
Obviously, that’s complete gibberish to most people, and it can only be interpreted by someone with a lot of training. Data like that is more or less useless to someone using a consumer-grade EEG headset at home.
All EEG devices meant for consumers (other than some DIY kits) therefore simplify this data in two days.
First, instead of showing you the readout, they generally tally up all the brain waves detected and tell you what percentage of your brain waves during a session were theta vs. alpha vs. beta waves.
Second, the EEG headset and app convert the raw brain wave data into a simplified indication of the user’s mental state. This is generally something like a relaxation score, or a gauge telling you how focused you were during your session with the headset.
In some cases, the headsets will also use a companion app to gamify the user experience in some way. As an example, the Versus app that I used has a game in which you focus on a hot air balloon; the balloon rises when you maintain a state of relaxed concentration, and it falls if you either aren’t focusing or aren’t relaxed enough.
This puts the data into forms that are much more readily understood and acted upon by users. However, it presents another problem: how do we know that the headsets are drawing accurate conclusions based on your brain waves, particularly since the raw data itself isn’t always reliable?
Ultimately, this is difficult to come up with a satisfying answer for, since brain waves themselves are, as mentioned, still relatively poorly understood. Nonetheless, these devices do seem to be at least somewhat effective and are likely to get better over time.
A Comparison of EEG Headsets
At present, there are over a dozen consumer EEG headset devices on the market. Prices vary wildly — from $249 all the way up into the tens of thousands of dollars.
For the sake of this article, I’ll limit my analysis to models priced under a thousand dollars, the price range that tends to attract more casual users. Higher-priced systems tend to be aimed at the medical, military and professional sports markets. My analysis is based on personal research; I’ve used one of these systems that I selected on the basis of what I found, but if your priorities differ, you might choose a different one.
At $249, Muse is probably by far the most popular and mainstream EEG headset device. It is also highly focused in it’s purpose — with the tagline “meditation made easy,” the makers are clear about the fact that Muse is intended primarily as a meditation training device.
The low price tag does come with a trade-off though: Muse is probably the least capable device on the market, at least in terms of sensor coverage. It has only four channels, and all of the electrodes are arranged in a horizontal band, so it can’t provide a three-dimensional image of the brain.
On the plus side, Muse is stylish, comfortable and travel-friendly. It is a dry system — no gel required.
Unlike Muse, Versus is goofy-looking, uncomfortable, and difficult to travel with, since it takes up about as much space as a volleyball and doesn’t fold up. The trade-off is that it’s a much more powerful system.
Versus has five electrodes spaced on the top, front, back, left and right, to englobe the head. Each electrode has little graphite contact leads that poke into the skin, which isn’t exactly comfortable. There’s also a conductive cream you’re supposed to apply to the leads before every session — it has a consistency that’s more of a pomade than a gel.
The result is that Versus is able to achieve a very high level of conductivity and to get a more accurate picture of the brain. And it’s still fairly easy to use — not as easy as Muse, but the headset pretty much just slips on without needing the electrodes to be carefully fitted to certain spots on your head, as is the case with some high-end systems.
I’ve used Versus and found it to be quite effective at helping me calm down or get focused on command; it also proved to be helpful in determining the optimal caffeine dosage for sports, weightlifting, and productivity. I’m not alone in that assessment — Versus has become popular as a training tool for elite athletes, as well as a treatment tool for doctors.
However, the price is high — in fact, as I was writing this I realized that Versus no longer falls under the thousand-dollar threshold I set for this article. When I got mine, it was priced at $699. Now, the headsets sell for $1299, plus users need an individual subscription for the app, priced at $20–30 a month. Doctors or coaches who wish to monitor the performance of their patients/athletes need a professional subscription that costs another $50–80 a month. And they may require a pre-order if they are out of stock.
At its high price tag and commitment, Versus is no longer really being marketed to individuals, but more so to sports teams and doctors offices, although a few elite athletes do still buy a headset for themselves. It’s very affordable if you have a group of ten or more people who can share a headset, but certainly not the most affordable deal for individual users.
NeuroSky MindWave Mobile 2
At $99, this is the cheapest option on the market. But how can the MindWave be that cheap? Well, mainly because it only has one electrode. Yes, just one.
It’s a dry system — no gel required — and is easy to put on, though nowhere near as sleek-looking as Muse. Reviews are mixed as to how well it works; some say it doesn’t really work at all, while others say it does under good conditions, but is easily thrown off by any amount of movement.
The killer app of the MindWave is, well, the apps. It comes with over a hundred free games and apps that can be used with the headset. These apps are described as “educational” and “brain-training” games, but from what I’ve seen of the reviews they’re exceedingly simple, and mostly just the same few ideas with different graphics, as you’d expect since there are over a hundred of them, all produced in-house.
In other words, the MindWave seems to be primarily a toy, rather than a device meant to be used for self-improvement. Given the extreme simplicity of the game, it’s probably more likely to appeal to small children than to adults, but for kids who love the idea of a “game” that they “control” with their brain.”
As you’ll see in a bit, even the MindWave, simple as it is, has some use beyond mere entertainment.
Another high-end option, the Epoc+ actually straddles the line between consumer-facing and research-oriented EEG devices. In fact, Emotiv makes several other headsets that are substantially more expensive and marketed purely towards researchers; the Epoc+ is their only headset that’s even partly targeted towards hobbyists.
It’s priced at $799. However, like Versus, you also need to pay for a license. Prices here are substantially higher, at $55–200 a month depending on the type of user (business vs. academic) and payment plan.
So, what do you get for that money? The Epoc+ has 14 electrodes/channels, the ability to recognize and save user-defined mental “commands” for experiments, and has one of the highest bandwidths and sampling rates on the market. It provides the full raw EEG data, along with detailed analytics, and some of the electrodes can be moved to different locations around the head — depending on what part of the brain you want to focus on.
That makes it a very robust option for hardcore biohackers, but also means it won’t be user-friendly for casual users and people who just want to learn to meditate better. Buying this would be a bit like buying a computer back in the late 70’s — you need to be prepared to put a lot of work into figuring out how to use it.
If the Epoc is like buying a computer in the late 70’s, OpenBCI is like building your own computer in the early 70’s. It’s a kit you have to assemble yourself, using open-source hardware and free, open-source software that provides you with all of your raw data, so that you can use it as you want.
There’s a variety of options here, ranging from two or three hundred dollars to well over a thousand, depending on how robust you want your system to be. You choose the components. Regardless of which one you choose, the system is fully wireless with onboard memory and an open-source SDK, and there’s a small community of people writing their own programs for OpenBCI.
There’s no subscription, and all software is free; donations are requested, but not required.
The market for OpenBCI is clear: dedicated makers and biohackers who enjoy the process of building and customizing their own system. It’s not for the casual hobbyist, but one big advantage it has is that you can upgrade your system, rather than needing to completely replace it, as your technical knowledge improves or as better parts become available.
With all that said, your choices are pretty clear.
If you just want a toy, get the MindWave.
If you want something that’s affordable and easy to travel with to aid with meditation, get the Muse. This is probably the option most people reading this article will be interested in.
If you want something substantially more powerful but still almost as easy to use — and you don’t care as much about cost or portability — get the Versus. In particular, get Versus if you’re a professional who wants a headset to use with their patients/clients, or a pro athlete.
If you want something even a little more powerful than Versus, with more flexibility and more robust data-analysis capabilities, and don’t mind vastly increased complexity, buy the Epoc.
Finally, if you’re a total DIY type, the kind of person who’s really into biohacking and building their own computers, look into OpenBCI.
But How Well Do EEG Headsets Work?
While both EEG headset technology and research into the headsets’ effectiveness are both in their infancy, there is growing evidence to support that these headsets can at least partially live up to their promises.
An Italian study from 2015 found that neurofeedback training with a commercial EEG headset was able to significantly reduce postoperative pain compared to a control group. Interestingly, this study used the MindWave. Yes, the same MindWave that has only one electrode, and which I described as being mainly a toy. So even low-end consumer EEG devices seem to have some therapeutic utility.
A 2017 study found that the Muse headset was sufficiently powerful and accurate to be used in place of traditional medical EEG systems for many research tasks, which have traditionally used medical EEGs to measure a subject’s neurological responses to stimuli.
Notably, the simpler consumer headsets like Muse do have one big advantage over medical headsets: less room for user error. While the hardware is weaker and the scans less accurate, there’s little room for the user to mess up either in placing the electrodes or interpreting the data. In practice, this may largely mitigate any disadvantage presented by the weaker hardware.
Another study tested whether EEG headsets could be used for control tasks — that is, whether they could effectively be used as an input device like a keyboard or video game controller. This study found that the MindWave correctly recognized commands 50% of the time, while the Epoc recognized them 75% of the time. While the MindWave has its uses, there are reasons to pay for quality.
That 75% figure for the Epoc may not sound very good — imagine if you hit the wrong key on your keyboard 25% of the time — but it’s good enough that in the very near future, we’ll likely be seeing headsets like these used by disabled people who otherwise can’t use traditional input devices like keyboards or cell phones.
It’s worth noting that many studies have found EEG biofeedback training to be effective in treating anxiety and depression. However, these studies used medical-grade EEG devices in a lab setting. More research is needed, of course.
In particular, most studies have compared EEG therapies to either placebo or pharmaceutical interventions. Since these devices are effectively an enhanced form of meditation, I’d really like to see studies that compare EEG therapy to traditional meditation training without an EEG device.
Are EEG Headsets the Way of the Future?
It’ll be some time before EEG headsets become commonplace, let alone before your Xbox comes with an EEG-based controller. But they’re already good enough to provide a usable interface for people who don’t have effective use of their hands.
As for therapeutic uses, right now even low-cost commercial headsets seem to be well worth the investment for people who want to reduce anxiety, improve their focus, and train themselves to be more awake during the day, and to fall asleep more easily at night.
The more expensive models are mainly aimed at institutional users and hardcore hacker-types, but a growing number of people are buying Muse headsets to help them meditate, and Versus headsets to improve athletic performance. As crazy as it may sound, the research suggests that these headsets may very well be worth the investment.