This techy Canadian headband wants to read your mind to help you relax
Jeff Lagerquist, CTVNews.ca
Published Saturday, December 3, 2016 10:52PM EST
A Canadian company is pushing wearable technology beyond fitness tracking and mobile alerts with a device that provides real-time feedback on what is happening in your brain while you meditate.
InteraXon’s Muse headband rests on your head like a crown, detecting electroencephalography (EEG) activity going on in your brain. It translates those signals into sounds, like waves crashing on a beach, as you meditate. The sound gets louder if you’re distracted and softer as you relax.
The Toronto-based company claims 20 minutes of meditation with Muse for three days in a row will reduce anxiety, improve mood and lower your heart rate. Longer sessions are said to cause positive changes in the brain, like decreasing amygdala activity associated with the body’s stress response.
“It’s not like you put this headband on and you float . . . it just makes it easier to form a habit,” Jay Vityarthi, the head of user experience design for Muse, told CTV News. “You’ve got professional sports teams, you’ve also got executives and high-level decision makers who are using it. These are people who are under a lot of mental pressure.”
The meditation aid can also pair with smartphones so users can track their progress with colour-coded charts.
The brain-sensing headband has attracted a lot of attention since its launch two years ago, drawing celebrity backers like Ashton Kutcher and Olympic skater Elvis Stojko. Now, the academic community is starting to take notice.
McMaster University psychology professor Allison Sekuler said she has long understood the benefits of meditation but lacked the discipline to adopt the habit. Now, she relies on Muse to help her stay mindful of distractions and achieve an optimal meditative state.
“Initially I was quite skeptical,” she said. “The more I used it, the more I realized this could help me control my thoughts and be more productive in meetings and everyday life.”
Sekuler -- who is a professor of psychology at McMaster -- was so impressed by Muse that she is conducting research for the company to better understand its effects and potential.
The global market for wearable tech is set to top US$14 billion in 2016, and grow to $34 billion by 2020, according to research from CSS Insights.
“People are recognizing that jogging or running or exercise is good for the heart. They’re (also) recognizing it is equally important to exercise the mind,” said InteraXon CEO Derek Luke.
Some mindfulness experts skeptical
Similar devices are on the market. NeuroSky's MindWave Mobile is one such EEG device. It has a single sensor and an entry-level price of $100. Emotiv Insight, at $659, is more advanced, with five sensors.
While EEG devices are being applauded by industry observers for injecting high tech into a centuries-old tradition, some meditation purists are not convinced.
Dr. Steven Selchen is head of mindfulness based therapies at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. Like the health experts who say there is little evidence that fitness wearables lead to lasting weight loss, he questions the ability of gadgets to reproduce the same results as the ancient practice.
“I am cautious about the utility of certain kinds of products,” he said. “We really need to see what research says to know how useful they are for people.”
The company says studies are underway to assess the headband’s ability to reduce stress among breast cancer patients and to help those with anxiety and depression.
The device has even been used by researchers at the University of Victoria to analyze the brain waves of meditating monks.
While turning meditation into a game that can be quantified on a mobile device may be effective in luring younger tech-oriented individuals, Selchen worries assigning numbers and values to meditation, effectively turning it into another computer game, could defeat its purpose.
“A lot of the devices that may be out there are really focused on training in a very goal-oriented way,” he said. “If that is challenging for people to do . . . that can play into their self-criticism. ‘I am not getting this right. I am not good at this. I am a failure.’ And that can actually pull them even further away from what we are trying to train in a meditation setting.”
Surveys have shown that more adults are intrigued with the idea of brain relaxation, but don’t have the time to attend classes for traditional training. Proponents suggest that devices like Muse offers a potential short-cut while science determines if technology-assisted meditation is as good as the real thing.
With a report from CTV's medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip