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I Meditate Every Night, But I Couldn't Outsmart This Brainwave-Reading Headband

The brain-sensing technology could someday play a role in create a mind-controlled Internet of Things.
January 5, 2015, 9:50pm
Staff writer Kaleigh Rogers tests out Muse ​Image: courtesy Jocelyn Umengan

​It's the first day of my first trip to the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, so you'd expect my brain waves to be a bit all over the map. But as an overly-anxious type who practices meditation nightly in order to fall asleep, I really thought I could outsmart Muse, the brainwave-reading meditation headband by Toronto-based developers InteraXon.

The headband sits across the forehead and tucks behind the ears, with seven strategically-placed electroencephalography (EEG) sensors that read and record your brainwave activity. The complementary app guides the user through a meditation session: the sound of gentle waves on a beach are played and the user is asked to count their breaths. If your thoughts start to wander, the sounds change to growing winds and crashing waves.

The goal is to use the audio cues—and the data provided at the end of the exercise—to improve your ability to clear your mind and calm yourself. Though Jocelyn Umengan, the company's PR rep, told me I should expect it to take a few weeks before I'd see improvements, I was certain I would be able to play Muse like a fiddle, waves crashing and disappearing at my whim.

At first I tried to do the activity properly, and indeed the waves sounded pretty calm with just a bit of a breeze stirring—I was simultaneously thinking about whether or not it was working. Then I decided to try to test it, racing through thoughts about everything from when my next interview is scheduled to what I will eat on the plane back to New York. The storm raged.

Finally, I decided to give it a good go, really focusing my thoughts on my breathing. The winds died, the waves slowed, and the beach was nearly silent...until I recognized what had happened and—pleased with myself and already penning this story in my mind—my brainwave activity immediately kicked back into high gear. Maybe I wasn't as in control of my thoughts as I thought.

Screengrab: author's actual brainwaves as documented by Muse

When we looked at my results and I proudly told Umengan my devious plan to test the device, she laughed.

"Honestly, Kaleigh, everyone does that, and you should because you want to see if it actually works," Umengan told me.

Muse debuted at the CES back in 2013, but the device wasn't available to the public until this past fall, selling online for $299 a pop. There isn't a lot new to the device since we first checked it out—they've worked out any kinks and have upgraded the app to include additional languages and different meditation settings—but InteraXon and brain researchers have high hopes for where the technology could eventually go.

In particular, Umengan mentioned the role brain-sensing technology could play in the Internet of Things, syncing your brainwaves with all the other devices in your home.

"Let's say you've preset it based on your emotions. It will be able to detect when you get home if your mind is a little bit anxious and it will put on Barry White music when you walk in or it will set the level of your mood lighting or it will pour you the exact scotch you enjoy when you're upset," she said.

InteraXon is very careful not to bill Muse as a medical device—Umengan repeated this several times—but its team is quick to point to medical research currently being conducted using the device at universities and hospitals, including Harvard and UC Berkeley. Umengan told me researchers are testing whether Muse can help people suffering from ADD, depression, or PTSD.

And while stress-reducing, guided meditation might not excite everybody, InteraXon has used brain-sensing technology to create prototypes for everything from brainwave-sensing video games to a mind-controlled beer tap.

Though I won't personally be shelling out 300 bucks for a Muse of my own, I can see the allure of the device. Meditation, while effective if performed well, is hard to measure and many people get frustrated if they don't see results right away: Muse may provide a simple, gearhead-friendly solution.