Buddhism, Gamified

A Buddhist scholar tries out the brain-reading headband designed to increase mindfulness.

Aug 7 2014, 9:30am


'Mindfulness' is officially a buzzword again, which means it's already close to becoming last week's fad. But a small group of entrepreneurs is working to ensure the trend stays fresh by thrusting mindfulness into the "quantified self" movement. Think FitBit for the Buddhist tech crowd. 

Last month, I attended the product launch of Muse, a "brain fitness tool" that claims to improve your physical and mental wellbeing by reducing stress. I was invited because of my academic and professional work with Buddhism, which nowadays is often branded for mass consumption as "mindfulness" and hailed as a cure-all for anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure, among other things. New meditation products are popping up every day, but this was the first time I'd heard of such a foray into wearable technology.

Muse is the latest product from InteraXon, a Canadian company specializing in brain-computer interfaces. Earlier this year, they came out with a thought-controlled beer tap. It seems like you could never really top that—in both awesomeness and irrelevance—but I attended its mindfulness event anyway.

The invite-only product launch took place on a swanky rooftop, complete with attractive, high-heeled sales reps and an open bar serving ginseng-infused juices. So far, so Buddhist! 

One of the associates led me through an Oz-like grey curtain and towards one of three testing chairs. She slid an iPad into my lap and gave me the rundown: Muse teaches you how to stay calm and do more with your mind. The headband uses EEG (electroencephalography) technology to track brain activity, bluetooth technology to send data to the iPad, and some other inexplicable technology to asses the data in its partner app, Calm.

She carefully placed and adjusted the $299 headband on my head. The first one didn't work.

"You don't have any brain activity," the associate joked, unconsciously foreshadowing my time there for the next half hour.

Another Muse headband was brought over by another high-heeled associate. This one worked. The Muse reps sighed in relief. Look, it's already reducing stress! Now, with the headband secured, headphones in, iPad charged, Calm app loading, and two strangers eagerly looming above me, I could finally start to relax.

The author, ready to relax with Muse.

To get a proper reading of my brain activity, the Calm app instructed me to think about different topics for several seconds: bodies of water, articles of clothing, etc. Then the meditation instructions began. I was told to eliminate all thoughts and instead focus on the breath. If this proved to be too difficult, I was to count every other breath.

Overall, the three-minute meditation session was very…noisy. "Soothing" waves are present throughout. The sound of wind indicates that you are having thoughts (bad) and the sound of chirping birds signals that you are thoughtless (good). If the wind noise increases, that means you're thinking too much; if the birds multiply, it means you're entering a thoughtless phase.

If this sounds complicated, that's because it was. And if this sort of mindfulness via thoughtlessness sounds familiar, that's because it is. Like many mindfulness products on the market, Muse takes pithy inspiration from Buddhism. On the surface level, its methods do seem similar to samatha (tranquility) and vipassana (insight) meditation. Within the Theravadan tradition, the oldest branch of Buddhism, samatha refers to the calming of the mind and is often viewed as a "warm-up" to vipassana. Vipassana meditation encourages a focus on the breath that gives our many thoughts space to rise and fall from consciousness.

I confirmed this parallel when chatting with Ariel Garten, founder and CEO of InteraXon, after my test run. Garten credits Michael Apollo, Director of Applied Mind Sciences at InteraXon, for the inspiration. Apollo claims experience with Theravadan and Tibetan Buddhism, as well as expertise in Indonesian Hindu-Buddhist philosophy, emotional intelligence coaching, and yoga. Of course yoga.

But someone as learned as Apollo should understand that meditation practice doesn't involve computer-simulated birds, quantified results, or a Gaia-from-Captain-Planet-esque headband. Meditation is much simpler. Although different lineages of Buddhism offer different reasoning, meditation is practiced to generate good metta (roughly, 'loving-kindess') that improves our level of reincarnation in the next lifetime. The ultimate goal of meditation is originally nirvana, not stress reduction.

Muse's desperate grasps at Buddhism don't stop there.

"They're actually a lesson in non-attachment," Garten told me later about the birds. When you get excited about hearing the birds, she explained, the headband recognizes the thought and the birds go away.

This is a grossly oversimplified example of non-attachment and more of a strange cat-and-mouse (or rather, cat-and-bird) game than a lesson in Buddhism. Non-attachment is recognizing an object in the present moment while, at the same time, being aware of its impermanence. It's not about not craving the bird—it's about recognizing the bird's presence and noting its impermanence. The fact that the bird goes away—period—is more of a lesson on impermanence than this weird "gotcha" mind trick.

Muse/Calm isn't the first Buddhist-inspired meditation app on the market. Popular smartphone apps like Headspace, Rewire, and buddhify all credit Buddhism as an inspiration, if only fleeting. I see these apps as a heightened version of Buddhist modernism, or the deinstitutionalization, demythologization, and psychologicalization of Buddhism. 

Simply put, it is the removal of institution, hierarchy, mythology, and other pesky religious rituals, paired with the transformation of one small aspect of Buddhism—meditation—into a contemplative practice. Digitizing meditation adds another layer: the gamification of spirituality.

When my session ended, the Calm app displayed a complex dashboard, filled with ambiguously calculated and unnecessary statistics. There were pie charts reporting I was "calm" for 29 seconds, bar graphs displaying my "neutral" state, and a point system based on my "performance." Psh, only 219 points? I could do better than that. Oh my god I'm competing with myself for more calmness.

By bringing the "quantified self" movement to mindfulness, Muse is trying to do what the Nike+ app did for running: packaging itself as "training wheels" for an otherwise simple task. After all, humans have been running and meditating without technological assistance for thousands of years. Unlike other life task apps, however, these mindfulness apps draw from a religious core. Yet they only draw out a small part. What happens to all the Buddhism leftovers? The thousands of years of history, ritual, community, and doctrine?

This anti-institutional attitude matches recent findings on religiosity. Interactive mindfulness technology is absolving our need for communication with and affirmation from traditional offline authorities. For non-Judeo-Christian religions, this is greeted with open arms, as practicing communities are usually too distant or scattered for regular, direct communication, if you even wanted it. The app becomes our own personalized authority: Siri for our psyche.

And by slapping a $299 price tag on sitting still and being thoughtless, something many Americans are already pretty good at, InteraXon is furthering the idea that mindfulness is a practice that belongs to the one percent. Perhaps they could be a bit more mindful of their entire approach.

Joanna Piacenza writes about religion, digital media, and Buddhism. She received her MA in Religious Studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where she worked as an Associate Researcher at the Center for Media, Religion and Culture. Piacenza's MA thesis explored the impact and use of meditation apps. Follow her on Twitter.