Originally posted on The Wall Street Journal as “Can Meditation Gadgets Help You Reduce Your Stress- And Find Happiness?” by Michael Hsu. Illustrations by Alex Walker.
BY NOW, MEDITATION is mainstream enough that you probably know someone who goes on and on about its benefits: reduced stress and anxiety, more kindness, an overall sense of well being. Whether inspired by a new year’s resolution, curiosity or your company’s HR department (employers from Target to Goldman Sachs are offering mindfulness training), you may have even tried it yourself. But the paradox is that what should be simple—doing nothing—is among the most difficult things to do.
I’ve been studying a form of meditation called wu ming qigong for over 15 years. Unlike the mindfulness meditation practices so popular now, it involves no special breathing or focusing of the attention. For years, I was fanatical about it, practicing daily, attending retreats. But then I hit a rut. With three young children and a full-time job, I hadn’t been able to devote as much time as I wanted to meditating. Sometimes for weeks, I would barely practice at all. So, last year, instead of resolving to meditate more—a resolution I knew I’d break before long—I decided to find out if I could meditate less, but better.
As a technology editor, I predictably looked to the least-meditative, most distracting thing in my life for a solution: my smartphone—specifically apps that pair with electroencephalography (EEG) headsets to provide biofeedback for meditators. The headsets pick up electrical activity emitted by the brain, and the apps interpret the data to provide visual or audio cues to let you know when it thinks you’ve attained a meditative state. These are like fitness trackers for the mind: motivating tools that promise to take a lot of the guesswork out of meditation.
NeuroSky’s MindWave Mobile (neurosky.com) is one such EEG device. It has a single sensor and an entry-level price: $100. The Emotiv Insight ( emotiv.com ), at $659, is more advanced, with five sensors. But the product that offers the most pleasant experience overall is the $299 Muse ( choosemuse.com ), a sleek headband that rests across your forehead and over your ears.
PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, STYLING BY ANNE CARDENAS
The Muse’s polished companion app uses audio feedback to facilitate the meditation process: the sound of ocean waves, rainfall, new-age music. When the app thinks your mind is wandering, the sounds become more turbulent. Ocean waves roar; rain falls harder. Conversely, when the app senses your mind is becoming more focused (a guided meditation in the app suggests putting your attention on your breath), the feedback sounds become more peaceful and, ultimately, quiet. If you maintain that state for more than a few seconds, the app emits the ultimate sonic reward: chirping birds.
My initial sessions with the Muse were frustrating. Although I’d been meditating for years, the focused-attention technique was foreign to me. I would hear nothing but turbulent feedback for 20 minutes. But after many tries over multiple days, I started getting a sense of what the Muse wanted me to do. (This is the norm, according to University of Toronto assistant psychology professor Norman Farb, who has conducted a pilot study of the device that was funded by the Canadian government and Muse’s maker, InteraXon. “Anecdotally, I would say that most people, within five to seven days, they’re getting some traction on pushing around the feedback signal,” he said.) Eventually I heard it: my first chirp.
Chasing those chirps was as addictive as Angry Birds. Failing only made me want to start another session again—and again and again. I went from never having time to meditate to “Musing” (a term the company uses) obsessively.
The Muse app has many of the motivating metrics found in fitness trackers like the Fitbit. It graphs the total amount of time you’ve spent using the device and prominently displays what percentage of that time it believes you were in a “calm” state. Assigning a score to one’s meditation efforts is undoubtedly un-Zen-like, but it sure is fun to check after you finish a session.
Aspects of using Muse are inherently unmeditative. Each time you put on the headset, the app asks you to complete a minute-long calibration exercise: namely, to think of as many street names, musicians, cooking utensils or other category of object as you can. Sometimes it takes a while for the sensors to pick up a signal (simply wait for your forehead to sweat a bit, suggests the company).
Once I got the knack of Musing, it didn’t take long for me to notice a greater sense of awareness spilling over into everyday life. I’d suddenly find myself acutely conscious of whatever was directly before me—my daughter sitting on my lap, the colleague I was speaking to—and even the smell of coffee wafting from the espresso bar a block away.
Could this be a taste of “awareness”—that sense of being in the present moment rather than evaluating it or being lost in thoughts about the past or future? (Achieving this state isn’t the objective of the type of meditation I’ve been practicing for years.) And did the Muse really help me unlock that?
ILLUSTRATION: ALEX WALKER
A Total Mind Game
Judson Brewer is the director of research at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School—an institution founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the godfather of the mindfulness movement in the West. When I related my experience with the Muse, Dr. Brewer was dubious. He questioned how a device with only four sensors could measure what the Muse claims to be measuring, and cautioned that subtle, imperceptible muscle movements in the eyes, forehead and jaw can confound any portable EEG device. (According to Graeme Moffat,director of scientific and regulatory affairs at InteraXon, the app’s algorithm can easily detect and ignore these.) What’s more, said Dr. Brewer, the efficacy of Muse’s algorithm for detecting a “calm” state has yet to be validated. (Dr. Moffat said these studies are in the works, with some completed studies undergoing peer review.)
Well, now I was curious. I asked Dr. Brewer if I could test out his research rig to compare. He agreed.
I’d read up on the type of EEG system Dr. Brewer used, but I didn’t realize before I arrived at his lab how involved the prep would be. I donned what looked like a swim cap dotted with 128 holes. Then senior postdoctoral fellow Remko van Lutterveld scraped my scalp at each of those points, squirted electrolyte gel in my hair and proceeded to hook up the 128 electrodes to the cap. About 20 minutes later, with a mass of wires coming off my head, I was ready to meditate.
The first exercise would be a test: I was to meditate and watch a feedback line on a screen that would creep up or down (kind of like a stock chart). At the end, I would say how I thought my meditation efforts had affected the line.
I used the same technique that made the Muse app chirp. Sure enough, the line started climbing. When I relaxed my attention, the line went down. I’ve nailed this, I thought. I told Dr. Brewer that meditating clearly made the line go up.
But I was wrong. The line should go down when I was meditating, Dr. Brewer said. I was flummoxed. After trying a few more runs, I was able to figure out the state that Dr. Brewer’s system was training. And it was completely different than what the Muse was looking for.
When I brought up this discrepancy with Dr. Moffat of Muse, he wasn’t surprised: Muse, he said, is designed to measure a technique called “focused-attention.” Dr. Brewer’s rig, on the other hand, measures “effortless awareness.” (This aligned with my experience: Muse feels like more of an exertion, Dr. Brewer’s rig more of a letting go.) The ultimate goal of Muse, Dr. Moffat added, “isn’t to get the precision that [Dr. Brewer] is trying to achieve; it’s to introduce meditation to people” and take the uncertainty out of the practice.
But Is This Meditation?
I ended up speaking to a half dozen neuroscientists about their take on devices like the Muse: Dr. Arnaud Delorme of the University of San Diego shared Dr. Brewer’s skepticism and concerns, while Dr. Randy McIntosh and Dr. Farb, both of whom are affiliated with the University of Toronto and have conducted research using the Muse, felt the device did provide usable data. Dr. Farb expressed “cautious optimism” about Muse’s potential.
But I was most surprised by the opinion of Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Davidson has studied meditation’s effect on the brain extensively, and he described himself as a “deep, dedicated meditator.” Yet he flat-out opposes the use of EEG biofeedback in meditation training—whether with a consumer EEG device or a more advanced one like Dr. Brewer’s.
“If you go back to the root of the word, ‘meditation’ in Sanskrit means ‘familiarization’: familiarizing an individual with the nature of his or her own mind. I think that when we get focused on external signals, we actually may detract from the ability to recognize certain features of our own mind,” said Dr. Davidson. He believes using biofeedback for meditation training can be more detrimental than helpful at this point. From a scientific standpoint, he said, we don’t yet know enough about what brain signals to look for to indicate a true meditative state. “The effort at this point is absurd. Literally, it makes no sense,” said Dr. Davidson.
Not surprisingly, my meditation teacher, Nan Lu, a classically trained doctor of Chinese medicine, was unimpressed, too. He said one can never use a machine to help with meditation because it guides people to look toward the exterior instead of the interior. Using meditation simply to develop focus, he added, is like “using a diamond to level a table.”
“Musing” may not be meditating—an ancient and powerful practice. But could it be a baby step in that direction? Based on a pilot study of the Muse that Dr. Farb recently completed, he thinks the question is worth exploring. “It might be that in the broad trajectory of a meditative training path, [the Muse is] only the first 1% of the path or the first half percent of the path,” said Dr. Farb. “But you got to start somewhere.”