I’m sitting on my bed, eyes closed and legs crossed, when a parade of unwanted thoughts clogs my consciousness. Are we running low on coffee filters? Did I remember to send the rent check? Should I add another step to my skincare routine? Inevitably, these thoughts are followed by a familiar refrain: This isn’t working. I’m wasting my time. Maybe meditation isn’t for me.
It’s a pattern I’ve grown used to after roughly 15 years of trying to start and maintain a meditation practice. Most sessions end with me feeling unsatisfied and giving up on building a routine until enough time has passed and I inevitably start the cycle again. This case, though, is different. Instead of overtaking me, my intrusive thoughts are interrupted by the sound of crashing waves playing from my phone. It’s loud enough to catch my attention without being jarring. I feel the chatter at the front of my brain melt into the background, and the rest of my body relaxes in response.
When the session ends, I’m sure I’ve achieved the mindfulness I’ve sought for so long. But I don’t need to rely on my memory to tell me that—the Muse app has been keeping track of everything for me. It shows me that after about three minutes of bouncing between neutral and active, my brainwaves resided in the neutral-to-calm space until the timer rang at the 10-minute mark. It also logged other statistics that I could review, like how many times I sustained a quiet mind or reined in my active thoughts.
Mindfulness From A Headband
Muse consists of an app and a specially designed headband that uses brain-sensing technology to teach mindfulness. Sensors in the headband measure brainwaves, while a soundscape playing through the app provides feedback on the wearer’s mental state in real time.
When I was first given the chance to review the company’s new Muse S headband, I was skeptical. Meditation is supposed to be about letting go, so wouldn’t an app that cheers you on when you get it right and scolds you when you get it wrong defeat the purpose? Sticking something on my head that was supposed to sense my thoughts also seemed a little, well, freaky.
At the same time, I was eager to try something that made the daunting task of making my mind shut up for a few minutes feel less intimidating. No matter how many times I’ve given up on meditation, there’s always been something that convinces me to give it another shot—usually it’s a new article touting the mental and physical benefits of the exercise. Meditation has been found to promote focus, alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, and even relieve lower back pain. But the best way to reap these benefits is through regular practice—not half-hearted attempts a few times a year. I knew I should be meditating consistently; I just didn’t know where to begin. A mind-reading headband seemed as good a starting point as any.
How Muse Works
The technology behind Muse is called electroencephalography. The headband’s sensors detect electrical impulses emitted by the brain and uses them to detect how calm or active the wearer’s thoughts are. It’s the same method doctors use to diagnose epilepsy and certain sleep disorders.
In a hospital setting, electroencephalographs are administered by attaching metal electrodes to a patient’s scalp. Lucky for me, Muse’s setup is much more comfortable. The flexible headband of the S model is made from soft fabric with a small piece of hardware in the front that detaches easily for charging. It’s an upgrade from the original Muse, which is made from stiff plastic that hooks around the ears like a pair of glasses. After the device is strapped snugly across my forehead, it’s easy to imagine I'm wearing a comfy sweatband, and eventually, I forget I’m wearing anything at all.
Before I can start meditating, I need to customize my experience. Muse offers several soundscapes, including beach, rainforest, city park, desert, and ambient noise. Still mourning the end of a recent trip to Florida and dreading the approach of winter, I choose beach. I also have the option to select instructions that will be read aloud before my session. Some exercises focus on a different aspect of meditation, like breathing, sitting comfortably, or dealing with distractions. I go with Muse’s introductory exercise.
I connect the Muse app to the headband via Bluetooth, and it prompts me to close my eyes and allow my thoughts to wander freely. This gives it a chance to calibrate the sensors and create a baseline for my brain activity. In addition to detecting brainwaves, the headband measures breath, heart rate, and body movement to paint a complete picture of my meditation session. Once all the sensors are active, it’s time to clear my head.
A Personalized Meditation Guide
The rhythmic sounds of the sea tumbling toward the shore and pulling away from it instantly put me at ease. I can picture the ebb and flow of the tide and align my breath with the image. I can smell the clean, salt air and let it to transport me away from the smoggy city street outside my window. For the first time all day, my mind is still.
This lasts for less than a minute. On cue, the unwanted thoughts creep back into frame, and soon enough, they’re dominating my head. Muse senses this before I do, and it gently lets me know by escalating the soothing whispers of the tide to the fuller sounds of crashing waves. A common meditation trick involves picturing your thoughts as a river and allowing them to flow by without resisting them or jumping into the water. As the ocean sounds change to reflect my brain activity, they fulfill the same purpose as that river: They represent my thoughts as something separate from me, which makes it easier to disengage with them.
The waves pull me back to mindfulness, and after a few seconds, a chirping bird breaks through the soundscape. This is Muse’s way of signaling that my brain activity has been calm for a sustained period of time. The chirps don’t last forever: This is my first time meditating in a while, and my out-of-practice brain spurs a diverse range of sounds over the next several minutes. But when I do find myself wading into the stream of my thoughts, it never takes me long to emerge.
Muse saves a snapshot of each meditation session. After a week of using the technology for 10 minutes a day, I can see how I’ve progressed. It now takes me just a minute to relax my mind instead of three. My latest report also shows that I spend 58 percent of my time in a calm state—up from 46 percent when I started.
I feel a difference when I’m not wearing the headband as well. If unwanted thoughts appear, I notice them faster and have an easier time letting them go. Having greater control of my thoughts has reshaped other aspects of my life, boosting my focus, helping with my anxiety, and putting me in a generally calmer, happier place.
Mindfulness is a skill that requires regular practice, and Muse makes a great exercise coach. After toning that mental muscle, I hope to get to point where I can notice my wandering thoughts and recover from them without a brain-sensing device to help me. But even if I master the art of meditation, Muse still has plenty to offer. A new feature included in the Muse S is compatible with the app’s Go-to-Sleep Journeys. These combine voice narration with soundscapes to lull wearers to sleep rather than into a mindful state. Whether it’s quieting my thoughts in bed or focusing them at the start of the day, an overactive mind feels a lot more manageable with technology on my side.
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