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Self-Help Patrol: Finding My Muse

Can a brain-sensing headband transform me from angsty to chill? I used Muse for a week to find out

I don’t have lots of “chill.” My default operating emotions are anxiety, resentment and an insecurity that often manifests itself as arrogance. If I were the protagonist in Inside Out, Anger and Disgust would man the helm while Fear and Sadness shouted directions at them and Joy cowered helplessly in the corner.

Which is why I decided to try the Muse headband and inject some much-needed mindfulness into my life. Available since September 2014, Muse aims to convert people into daily meditators by combining the utility of a mobile app with the cachet of wearable technology and the thrill of “gamification.” By showing users a readout of their neural activity — their number of “calm points” — Muse entices them to keep meditating and set new high scores.

The device was introduced in December 2012 as an IndieGoGo project that raised $287,677, nearly double its goal. It’s made by Interaxon, a Toronto-based tech startup that specializes in building hardware and software for “sensing brainwaves” (and has raised more than $17.2 million from venture capitalists, including Ashton Kutcher).

The headband uses EEG technology to record a person’s neural activity while they meditate. The data is transmitted to the Muse app via Bluetooth where it’s converted into sound, providing users instantaneous feedback on their mental state. When the brain is overactive, the ambient sounds become chaotic. But when a user quiets their mind, so does the music.

I’m simultaneously the best and worst candidate for such an experiment. On one hand, I’m a hyper-rational skeptic who rolls his eyes at anything remotely New Age-y. I think astrology is a total crock and was saddened to hear a dear friend spent $300 getting her chakras cleansed (coincidentally, the same price of a Muse headband).

Yet I’m a sucker for any app, device or lifestyle adjustment that claims to make my life more efficient, and I firmly believe my mental state affects my physical one (and vice versa). I used to psych myself up for football games by listening to DMX. Conversely, I now cook to relieve stress — something about mindlessly chopping vegetables puts my brain at ease.

Meditating is a mental exercise in the same vein, just turned up to 11 (and with your mind turned down to one).

The Muse app home screen.

Goal

Use Muse as my “personal meditation assistant” to transform into a calmer, more productive meditation bro.

Strategy

Muse suggests that meditation newbies start with three-minute sessions and work their way up. But I wanted to challenge myself, and decided to do one 12-minute meditation session every day for a week.

Who is the ideal consumer?

A tech-savvy Type A person who would likely never try meditation were it not a quantifiable experience.

Is it bullshit?

Vedic meditation instructor Theo Burkhardt says Muse is only 70 percent accurate — sometimes the intensity of the sounds don’t correspond to his mental state. More damning, though, Burkhardt challenges Muse’s central principle that brain activity directly correlates with mindfulness. Muse implies heightened neural activity is a negative outcome, when it could very well signal the person is ridding himself of deep, underlying stress, says Burkhardt.

Did it work?

The short answer: Yes.

My first meditation session was harrowing. I chose the beach as my soundscape option thinking the gentle lapping of waves would keep me at ease. But suddenly the wind picked up and the waves began crashing and I found myself in a self-reinforcing anxiety spiral: The worse the “weather” got, the more anxious I was about ruining my meditation session. The more concerned I was, the more active my brain — and so on — ad infinitum. Meditation was supposed to free my thoughts, not trap me deeper inside them.

Day two saw a minor improvement, as I noticed that it was my thinking about trying to not think that prevented me from achieving mindfulness. I needed to simply let go (admittedly, not my forte). Muse seemed to be a philosophical exercise about the recursive nature of mind and body. Descartes would surely approve.

On the third day, there was a miracle: I was calm for 99 percent of my session. I also had 143 “birds” (Muse funnels bird sounds into your ears whenever you’re in a particularly mindful state). I was thrilled. I usually spend my hungover Saturday mornings alternately overeating and masturbating. On this one I transcended.

My meditation performance regressed the next two days. I found myself putting off my meditation sessions for no discernible reason. It’s easy to imagine people buying Muse as a part of short-lived self-improvement kick only to have it gather dust in a junk drawer just weeks later. My scores were markedly better than days one and two, but didn’t approach my day three zenith.

On day six, I was sitting at my desk when I heard a bird tweet and was instantly transported into my meditative state. Earlier that day, the disembodied voice that accompanies the start of each Muse session had compared learning to meditate to training a puppy: Muse proved Pavlovian, indeed.

The seventh and final day of my self-experiment, I changed my soundscape to a city park because I’ve always found the ambient noise of urban life oddly soothing. But the city afforded me no chill — it was my worst session since day two. The downside to seeing my stats was that I criticized myself for poor scores, which was not zen in the slightest.

Would you recommend it?

I don’t know if I developed the discipline to become a daily meditator and I certainly can’t in good conscience recommend you drop $300 on a Muse headband. But using Muse did elucidate some profound thinking — namely about where I place my attention and why. I have a tendency to fill every inch of my day with media consumption. I listen to podcasts or music whenever I exercise, cook and shower; I read a book every night just before falling asleep; I check my phone incessantly and spend the entirety of my workdays staring at dozens of windows on two monitors. And I do all this under the guise of productivity and expanding my knowledge.

Muse forced me to consider whether this bombardment of sight and sound is really just a distraction from myself. I noticed thinking about certain duties and interpersonal relationships caused spikes in my brainwaves and was forced to contemplate why. In the absence of other people’s thoughts, I was forced to grapple with my own.

I haven’t arrived at any answers, but I have an abundance of new questions for myself. I suppose that’s the first step on the journey to self-enlightenment. Hopefully I can ingrain Muse into my daily routine. If not, I’ll just buy a bird.

John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL. He previously wrote about the NFL’s forgotten retirees.

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