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What Executive Couldn’t Use A Device To Calm The Mind? Our Journey Into Neurofeedback.
There you sit, breathing quietly. Your thoughts are untroubled, and you notice aspects of body and soul that you’d miss in the usual race through your day: how shallow and nervous your breaths are, for instance, or how your problems don’t seem so big. This is calm.
You are getting in touch with yourself, just accepting your thoughts. Here comes one: Am I doing this right?
Uh-oh. Goodbye, calm and focus. You’re fast disappearing under a wave of anxiety and confusion.
The thing about being alone with yourself is that … well, you’re alone with yourself. For all the benefits of escaping the metrics, indicators and other feedback that normally pound at you, having no feedback at all can leave you wondering whether you’re just fooling yourself. A meditation teacher could help, but disappearing into an ashram or a monastery isn’t an option for most, especially for high-powered executives.
But it turns out that there are some fascinating new options to becoming your own guru. A convergence of technical advances has spawned an industry of relatively inexpensive devices that use electroencephalograph (EEG) to help people train their minds to do everything from concentrate better to control pain or de-stress. It’s a far cry from the days when EEGs involved big computers and hundreds of electrodes placed on the scalp, which essentially confined neurofeedback to laboratories, clinics and hospitals instead of your own home—or office. The new devices are so simple they’re linked to laptops or even smartphones.
One of the first companies to launch a home EEG product was NeuroSky. You can get one of their headsets, and three apps that work with its data, in a $99 kit. The set picks up brainwaves with a single sensor, located on the forehead (a typical lab EEG has 256). With a wireless connection to a computer, the device will show the waxing and waning of the five types of brainwaves—alpha, beta, delta, gamma and theta. To make the data useful, scores of apps are available, not only for meditation but for other neurofeedback uses, such as managing chronic pain or developing focus. Similar setups, at similar prices, are on offer from other companies—for example, the FocusBand EEG headset (which has three sensors) and the PLX XWave, which offers “medical-grade EEG” starting at $90.
NeuroSky’s single sensor means it only picks up frontal lobe signals. That isn’t trivial—the frontal lobe is most involved in planning, problem solving and making you you—but it does leave a lot of the brain in the dark. This isn’t the headset for some of the more data-thirsty, science-fictiony neurofeedback applications, like controlling a drone with your thoughts.
For that, you could turn to an Australian firm called Emotiv. For $299, it will sell you its Insight headset, which connects to your computer via a USB dongle. Insight has five sensors, enough for the device to produce a portrait of activity throughout your brain. Emotiv emphasizes that you can also use the headset, combined with machine-learning algorithms, to train yourself to move a remote-control car, fly a drone, play a game or interact in a virtual reality setting.
My own interest in these devices isn’t so bleeding edge; I was interested in how neurofeedback could teach me a highly personalized and scientific method of meditation. So I acquired Interaxon’s dedicated seven-sensor meditation-training headset, the Muse, which you can pick up for about $250. The headband pairs over Bluetooth with a smartphone app and begins by taking some baseline EEG measurements. After that, an instructor’s pleasant voice sets you up for a closed-eye meditation session in which you focus attention on your breathing.
As the minutes go by, the app translates the EEG signals into a soundscape (I picked a desert, after trying seaside and city). Things get noisy if you’re distracted and quiet when you’re correctly concentrating. If you stay in the zone of quiet attention, you hear the faint tweetings and chirpings of imaginary birds. After the session is complete, you can look at a line graph that describes your trajectory over three possible states of mind: wandering, resting and concentrated.
Muse is not idiot-proof. It took me a while to place the headband in the proper place. Experience also taught me that the initial calibration can fool the system. If your baseline is jumpy and nervous, the device then mistakes jumpy and nervous as calm throughout the session.
Muse gamifies motivation, offering “points” and congratulatory e-mails for sticking with sessions and meeting goals. It also invites you to share your meditation milestones with others on social media. I guess these tools are simply the modern app’s substitute for the traditions and routines at ashrams, monasteries and other reflective places for thousands of years—but to me Facebook and a running tally of my bird count are the kinds of distractions I am trying to get away from.
Once I got the hang of it, however, I came to like the Muse routine. The data graphs give me insight over longer periods of time than I’d otherwise have, providing an idea of when and how I can concentrate more easily. And over time I am getting better at attracting those bird sounds.