People spend about 47% of their day thinking about something other than what they're currently doing, according to psychologists at Harvard University, who assert that a "wandering mind is an unhappy mind." A new product currently sold online is facing this problem head on. Making waves on Indiegogo, and most recently, at The International CES in Vegas, Muse is a headband that monitors brain activity the same way a heart rate monitor reads your pulse. Created by Canada-based InteraXon, its objective is to refocus the mind during that 47% chunk of time when your thoughts are elsewhere.
"In society, there are so many things that are pulling at our attention right now," says Michael Apollo, Director of Mind Sciences at InteraXon and experienced trainer of stress reduction techniques from the University of Toronto. "We're so agitated, so anxious, that we're forgetting we have a choice of what we bring our attention to and what we don't." According to Apollo, Muse is a tool that can be used to reclaim that choice.
How Muse Works
Designed with the user in mind, Muse's sleek aesthetic sits lightly across your forehead. It uses seven sensors, five across the front of your head and two behind the ears. This allows the tool to detect and measure brain activity, converting mental pulses into digital information. "It notices and monitors when your attention is drifting," says Apollo. But Muse goes a step further than simply monitoring, it conditions your brain to manage stress. Through a series of various training exercises, the device calms and focuses the mind into what is considered an "optimal state of mind."
Does it Actually Work, Though?
So what exactly is this "optimal state of mind" that seems to be the ultimate goal for Muse users? In contrast to what Harvard researchers deemed the "wandering mind," reaching for a focused mental state is the balm for an overwhelmed and exhausted brain. Those who suffer from anxiety are constantly plagued by excessive worrying, restlessness and irrational fear. These negative thoughts create a chatter in the mind that causes even further stress and unease. Reaching the ideal mental state, the "optimal state of mind," would involve quieting down the excessive mind chatter—an actual form of therapy for anxiety, known as neurofeedback. Muse utilizes strategies reminiscent of neurofeedback therapy, which is a popular alternative for the often medication-based treatment of cognitive disorders. This type of rehabilitation, also known as EEG biofeedback, is direct training of the brain for better function. It focuses on self-regulation, developing coping mechanisms for the brain in times of excessive mental distress.
While neurofeedback is a sound form of therapy, it is far from being the end-all "cure" for anxiety. Dr. Alexander Bystritsky, Director of Anxiety Disorders Clinic at UCLA, points out that there are no randomized controlled clinical trials of this type of treatment to document its effectiveness. "As with any neurofeedback, the problem is that many of the patients are not still or patient enough to sit through the session," says Bystritsky. We found this to ring true, as our Associate Editor, Amber Materna, road-tested the device during Las Vegas' most recent tech convention, CES.
Materna, an avid practicer of meditation, most closely described the experience as a "game-version of meditation." "I really enjoyed using Muse, especially because I am an incredibly competitive person. The gamification of meditation led me to being more engaged with actively breathing. There was a downside, though. The equipment didn't work for me. It turns out if you don't have a solid enough connection the equipment won't read correctly, and will produce lots of what the app deems as noise. This was a bit distracting, making the need to keep my attention mandatory."
Engaging the User
As a consumer-driven model, Muse hopes to overcome this hurdle with meaningful point systems, milestones to attain, and challenges to overcome in order to keep users' attention. This kind of focus on the individual's practical needs is further apparent in its technical specs which include:
- Communications over Bluetooth
- Compatible with iOS, Android, Mac OS, Windows 7 & 8 and Ubuntu Linux LTS releases
- Powered by rechargeable Lithium-ion battery
- Up to 4.5 hours of battery life
- Charged through micro-USB jack
"All of our research innovation is really focused on the user. There's nobody in the market right now that's doing something like this," says Apollo.
But Muse's influence on anxiety doesn't end at the present day user. The potential it opens up for furthering the general understanding of brain activity and stress is significant and not to be dismissed. While InteraXon is not currently pursuing medical research through the use of Muse, it is creating an SDK which could be used to influence future research endeavors.
Find out more about anxiety treatments here.
Date of original publication: January 16, 2014.
Updated on November 10, 2015.
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