Remember that Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Game,” where Riker brought back that addicting headband game from Risa and Wesley almost (almost) saved the day by himself? Well, the Muse brain sensing headband won’t lead to anyone else controlling your mind, but it will make you better at controlling your own mind with auditory feedback for mindfulness exercises. It may sound futuristic, but really the tech to monitor brain signals has been around for over 100 years. Muse has just slimmed down that tech into a sleek headband that weighs less than one pound.
How Does It Work?
Muse uses something similar to neurofeedback therapy for migraines, which is based on solid and longstanding science. The headband measures electrical signals from the brain, and uses that information to help you meditate or practice mindfulness using audio prompts — something that, over time, can physically change the brain for the better. Yes, that’s right, research has shown an actual increase in brain gray matter density along with other changes. So there are real benefits to mindfulness, and that has had applications for Olympians and those suffering from PTSD, to name two examples.
The Muse headband is an elegant way to accomplish what used to involve a ton of cords and stickies on your noggin. One strip of sensors lays across the middle of your forehead and one sensor set sits on the back of each of your ears. These send the brainwave info to the Muse app over a Bluetooth connection, and that information is fed back to you in real time through a variety of soundscapes. Those soundscapes range from intense weather when your mind is very active, to calm weather with chirping birds when you are very calm. That means your brain is given hundreds, and eventually thousands, of opportunities to learn from feedback thanks to software in the palm of your hand. All of this feedback helps your brain learn resilience. Why is that important? In a piece for the Harvard Business Review, Daniel Goleman said of brain resiliency,
“Whenever we get so upset we say or do something we later regret (and who doesn’t now and then?), that’s a sure sign that our amygdala — the brain’s radar for danger, and the trigger for the fight-or-flight response — has hijacked the brain’s executive centers in the prefrontal cortex. The neural key to resilience lies in how quickly we recover from that hijacked state.
The circuitry that brings us back to full energy and focus after an amygdala hijack concentrates in the left side of our prefrontal area, finds Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin. He’s also found that when we’re distressed, there’s heightened activity on the right side of the prefrontal area. Each of us has a characteristic level of left/right activity that predicts our daily mood range — if we’re tilted to the right, more upsets; if to the left, quicker recovery from the distress of all kinds.”
How It Feels To Use It
If you are anything like me, I have zero tolerance for or interest in spending my time or energy in anything not solidly grounded in science. I am not eager to sit around quietly with my eyes closed not knowing if I am actually accomplishing anything. I need feedback to commit to it, which is why the Muse Headband’s auditory feedback is so helpful. I know something is happening, I know my brain is learning. I can see the results. That goes a long way toward getting me to commit to doing brain training mindfulness regularly.
But how did it feel? Hard at first. I went into it expecting to totally nail it. Nope. In fact, concentrating on nailing it results in the opposite effect. The goal here is not to empty your mind as some religious practices of meditation encourage. It is not to feel super peaceful. It is to simply notice the present without acting on it. The brain has been proven to have a tendency to resort by default to a storytelling mode where it plans for the future or thinks about the past. Resisting that urge by simply noticing what is happening now is hard and takes practice, but the benefits as Goleman showed above are better resilience in the face of upsetting situations and, ultimately, better decision making. That was key for me. This is not a practice where you abandon critical thinking for soothing breathing. No, it is a way to physically train your brain to ultimately make better choices and recover more quickly from upsetting situations.
After trying out all of the weather programs, being from Arizona, I settled on the desert one — my husband, who is from Washington, settled on the rainforest one. The variety will leave you with something to choose that best suits you. There is also a city park, beach, and ambient music to chose from. It takes work to not be jarred by the intensity of noise that comes with an increase in brain activity and it is equally as difficult to not be jarred by the little chirps of the birds when you are successfully being calm, but with practice I found myself more comfortable with both and increasingly more able to recover, and to increase the length of each session time. At the end of each session, you get a report of how you did as pictured above.