Can Technology Make You a Better Meditator?
Welcome to the new world of brain-sensing and brain-training devices
It’s 4 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon and I’m sitting on the couch, surrounded by the noises of a virtual rainstorm. I’m wearing a metallic headband that loops behind my ears and across my forehead, stuck tight to my skin with suction. As I sit still, the headband hums slightly, collecting data about my brain through EEG sensors. When my brain becomes more active — specifically when my dog drops a toy on my lap or when I’m thinking about what to make for dinner — the sound of the rainstorm increases to a loud din. When I focus on my breath, on the methodical inhale and exhale, and the movement of my stomach, the storm sounds calm down. Occasionally, when I’m feeling very calm, I even hear birds.
After my 10-minute meditation session is over, the Muse brain-sensing headband (I’m using the most updated model, the Muse 2) delivers a report to my phone, detailing my meditation experience with a series of graphs and data points. According to the report, I was calm for 17% of that first session, equaling a grand total of one minute and 44 seconds. I spent about six minutes in a neutral state and nearly two minutes in an active state, and I “recovered” (meaning that I went from active to neutral, or active to calm) a whopping 39 times during the 10-minute session.
I think it could be useful to beginners as “training wheels” to get the hang of meditation.
Muse’s new meditation headband is just one device in a collection of new solutions that measure the effectiveness of your meditation sessions with data. As the mindfulness industry grows (it was reported to be worth $134 million in 2018, according to a report from Fact.MR, with projected 7% year-over-year growth), entrepreneurs are trying to find new ways to capitalize on the public’s increased interest in the ancient practice. Technology seems like the perfect way to get people hooked.
But there are still a lot of questions about these devices, as they’re fairly new to the market and many don’t have solid research behind them. First, do the devices actually “work?” Meaning: Do they really teach you to meditate? Second, do you actually need a device to get at meditation’s overarching benefits? Finally, and perhaps most controversially, do technological devices like these sully the generations-old tradition of meditation in an irreparable way, or do they help introduce more people to a practice that could benefit them long-term?
A new focus on mindfulness
Mindfulness is a decades-old practice based on ancient Buddhist and Hindu traditions; it often includes yoga and meditation, among other things, and it typically involves bringing your attention to the present moment over and over again. During the past few decades, scientific research about mindfulness meditation has taken off. Research, much of it funded by the NIH, shows that even short, 10-minute mindfulness meditation sessions can help people control and manage their pain, especially chronic pain; lower blood pressure; improve anxiety and depression symptoms; and assist with smoking cessation, among other things.
As more people learn about and embrace the benefits of meditation, brick-and-mortar studios and meditation apps are popping up everywhere. At the time of this writing, there were over 1,000 meditation-related apps available on iTunes and a 2018 study from the CDC found that more than 14% of American adults had meditated in the past year. (That number is a big increase from 2012, when only 4% of adults reported engaging in any kind of meditation practice.)
Harvard Medical School professor and Massachusetts General Hospital researcher Sara Lazar has been studying meditation’s positive effects for decades, and she believes the practice is becoming more widespread largely because it’s an effective balm for stress. Studies confirm that stress levels are increasing: In a 2018 APA study, 39% of Americans reported being more anxious than they were in 2017. American teenagers are also showing a steady rise in mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes, according to a 2019 study. (For example, rates of major depressive episodes in American teens increased by over 50% between 2009 and 2017.) Meditation is known to improve anxiety and depressive symptoms, especially for people who develop regular meditation practices.
All of these factors have led some experts to say that meditation will soon be one of the three pillars of wellness in western society: diet, exercise, and meditation.
Where technology comes in
It can be hard to get used to sitting still when you’re a beginner. Without instruction, the basic directions of meditation (which often involve “sitting with yourself” and “coming back to your breath”) can feel confusing. Muse co-founder Ariel Garten says that when she was running a private psychotherapy practice, her big secret was that even though she recommended meditation to her clients, she couldn’t do it herself.
“I thought I sucked at it,” she says. “My brain bounced around a lot.”
Many entrepreneurs, Garten included, believe that this basic problem can be solved with technology. Founded in 2007, Muse (developed by scientists who formed a company known as InteraXon) was one of the first user-friendly, consumer-focused EEG technologies to hit the market. Garten says the idea for the headband originally came out of Steven Mann’s wearable computing lab at MIT, where they were using brain-sensing computers to do simple tasks with their minds.
“We recognized that while we were teaching people to control the world outside with their minds, like turning on the lights, we were also teaching them how to meditate,” she says. “And it’s perhaps more valuable, even, to be able to control the world inside of you. We could give them real-time feedback and a window into their own minds. This made the intangible mind tangible.”
There are several other devices on the market with similar aims: One is the France-based myBrain Technologies, which developed a solution called melomind that offers biofeedback through EEG sensors. According to Sophie Squillaci, the company’s Marketing Manager, their target audience is people who want to train their brains to calm down and activate on command, rather than just learning to meditate.
WAVE, a music-based meditation service, was released several months ago to the tune of a nearly $6 million investment. The program allows users to meditate along to music by sitting on a yoga bolster (which you purchase and use at home) that vibrates in time with curated playlists, some of which also contain guided meditation sessions from popular teachers. Spire Health offers remote respiratory monitoring, claiming to track your breath and, by proxy, your stress levels. And Thync’s bioelectronic therapies track your brain activity during daily routines, when you’re at work or at home, to help you “achieve calm or increase your energy levels,” according to a 2015 press release.
To use the Muse 2 headband, you slip on the device over your ears and match the sensors to key points behind your ears and on your forehead. The Muse 2 offers several meditation methods: mind, heart, breath, and body. Garten says the “mind” track is the most popular; as experienced when I used this setting, the device translates the sound of your mind into the sound of weather. “You quiet the storm when you bring your mind back.”
Muse relies on EEG technology to track your brain activity. “It’s the same tech you see in a hospital or a lab,” Garten explains, “but instead of sensors being goo-ed onto your head with wires, it’s a slim device with a dry sensor.” According to Garten, the Muse headband reads your EEG, or the electrical sum total of activity in your head. “What we have is an algorithm that looks at whether you’re in focused attention or if your mind is wandering.”
She says that the Muse headband tracks a “unique and complex combination of various brainwaves” to define three states: active (when your attention is fluctuating and your mind is wandering), neutral (which is your natural resting state — not focused, but not fluctuating), and calm (when you have a deep, restful focus on your breath). The latest model offers a built-in pulse oximeter to measure your heartbeat, an accelerometer to track movement, and a gyroscope to check in on your breath. Whenever your mind is wandering and you notice, then try to bring your attention back to your breath, you get rewarded with a “recovery” stamp on your final report. (for example, it’ll say “10 recoveries!” when it lists your accomplishments). This “recovery” is one of the hallmarks of Buddhist mindfulness meditation and appears, based on research, to be one of the aspects that helps people have a beneficial meditative experience.
Does Muse accurately measure your brain activity? Preliminary studies say yes: One, published in 2017 with the less-updated Muse 1, found that the device’s at-home, basic EEG sensors track sleep states with 87% accuracy, just like EEGs you’d find in a hospital or lab setting. Another, published in 2016, showed that Muse accurately allowed scientists to track participants’ enjoyment based on frontal theta activity. A 2018 report published in the journal Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics classified Muse as “recommended for exploratory use and supportive data, [with] more validation data and experience needed.” (Most sleep monitors and gait monitors also received this designation.)
But on the flip side, some scientists feel that Muse’s usefulness is “extremely limited in non-laboratory conditions.” Meaning, the EEG sensors in these devices appear to work just about as well as the ones you’d find in labs, but human error outside the lab may make the devices less effective overall when people are using them at home, without supervision.
How effective is the current technology?
The research around these devices and their impact on one’s meditation experience is still quite thin. One study, conducted at the Catholic University of Milan, asked people to wear the Muse headband daily for four weeks. They found that users who practiced meditation with the headband on showed reduced stress and improved emotion regulation compared to their normal state. Garten says the device is also being used in clinical trials at the Mayo Clinic — for example, to help calm down breast cancer patients while they’re waiting to undergo procedures.
The technology appears to be well-suited for teaching beginning meditators how to stay focused. Jon Krop, the owner of a meditation-training company for corporate entities called Mindfulness for Lawyers and an experienced meditator himself, says he has tried Muse in the past, simply out of curiosity.
“I think it could be useful to beginners as ‘training wheels’ to get the hang of meditation,” he says. “Beginners will tend to spend a lot of time during their meditation sessions in oblivious mind wandering, having gotten distracted and basically forgotten what they’re doing. Muse will cut that off before too long by giving them external feedback that they’ve become distracted.”
Krop notes that after a while, however, people should “work their way out” of needing this kind of help; eventually, you’ll want to be able to refocus your attention on your own, without a headset.
These devices also seem to have promise outside of meditation, in labs. The Muse’s EEG sensors, specifically, can look at brain function and activity at home, making it easier for people to participate in clinical neuroscience studies on a daily basis. The company is currently working with researchers at the University of Toronto on a project that measures improvements in attention, with scientists at McMaster University to look at brain data related to aging, and with the Rotman Research Institute to look at how we can improve the speed of learning.
Despite generally positive research, members of the meditation community give the devices mixed reviews. One of the biggest debates goes beyond the actual technology: Whether or not the commercialization of meditation — which some people have titled “McMindfulness” — corrupts a decades-old practice that doesn’t need to be messed with.
In a 2015 piece for The Guardian, well-known meditation teacher and practitioner Jon Kabat-Zinn writes: “As critics are correct to point out, a real understanding of the subtlety of mindfulness is required if it is to be taught effectively: it can never be a quick fix. Some have expressed concerns that a sort of superficial ‘McMindfulness’ is taking over which ignores the ethical foundations of the meditative practices and traditions from which mindfulness has emerged, and divorces it from its profoundly transformative potential.”
In traditional Buddhist meditation practices, there is no way to “do it right” because the meditation process isn’t something you judge. Of course, the point of meditation is to sit with your feelings and bring your attention back to your breath — but Buddhist monks definitely didn’t receive “badges” for completing 10 days of meditation in a row. What’s more, meditation practices are traditionally offered for free, which presents an interesting market tension.
For Krop, this popularizing of an ancient practice isn’t too much of a concern, though. He thinks more meditation is always better, no matter the form.
“A rising tide lifts all ships,” he says. “More ‘lightweight’ meditation practice should also lead to more deep meditation practice. If deep, transformative meditation practice one day becomes mainstream, which is what I want, it will only be because more casual meditation practice became mainstream first. So I’m grateful for the apps, the studios, and all the rest.”
The question remains: Do people need these devices to meditate well? The answer, according to most researchers, is still a resounding no. After all, most existing studies on the benefits of meditation focus on in-person meditation sessions with teachers or listening to guided sessions via an app or audio clip.
“People like toys,” Harvard’s Sara Lazar says. “There’s always the question of ‘Am I doing it right?’ and these devices can tell you. I have mixed feelings about that but I think [tech-inspired meditation is] the next big area for commercialization.”