Using Technology to Achieve Zen for the Holidays

There is technology to track your activity, track your diet, track your work, track your email, track your sleep, track your social life, and just about anything else you want to quantify. But there aren’t many gadgets that teach you something, and even fewer that teach you how to relax. Last year in my New Year roundup, I mentioned the development of a new meditation headband, Muse, that promised to evaluate your brain activity and coach you into a meditative state. Well, it’s finally available, and I just had to try it. Does Muse help you achieve nirvana?

First of all, I know you’re wondering: how does it work? Well, Muse is a headband that pairs with your mobile device via bluetooth, and functions in tandem with a free app. The headband is lightweight and runs across your forehead and hooks over your ears. The headband has sensors that need to rest against the skin of your forehead and behind your ears in order to read the electrical impulses your brain makes while thinking. It’s basically a small EEG machine on your head.

To begin, the app guides you through a setup process, first making sure all the sensors have connected properly, and next, a calibration process where you are asked to perform mental tasks so that Muse can get a reading of what your active brain looks like. Once you’ve finished, Muse begins your meditation session. Throughout the session, you’re provided with audio feedback of your mental activity in the form of wind and birds. The calmer the wind, the calmer your brain, the more gusts, the more you’re thinking. Once the winds calm down, you can hear the water lapping on the shore of a lake (or ocean, it’s your session). Stay calm long enough, a a bird will tweet softly, a little reward for your quiet.

The Muse headband does not have headphones of its own, so you’ll need to either use the speakers on your device, external speakers, or (as Muse recommends) your own headphones. I found the headphones the most difficult to work with, because when the wind kicked up, I’d get startled and chastise myself, and then it would take several seconds to get the calm back again. The same would happen when there was a bird. I’d be so excited, and Whoosh! Wind again. Somehow a little distance from my ears enabled me to distance myself from the reaction. People who meditate regularly will tell you that a part of meditation is the ability to shut out the activity around you, and be unmoved by it. Personally, I haven’t achieved that skill just yet.

The sessions themselves are partially customizable. You can choose between a male or female narrator, the difficulty of your session, and the length of your session. As you do more and more sessions, you unlock achievements in the app, as well as longer term data that provides you with a timeline view of your sessions, the ability to browse your individual sessions, and insights about you, such as, “you tend to meditate in the afternoon” and “your sessions are calmer on Tuesdays.” I only used Muse for a few weeks so far, but I’m curious as more data becomes available what further insights I’ll learn.

Not only are you learning a still mind, but body as well. The EEG sensors are sensitive. Even small movements like licking your lips or crinkling your brow will bring on a rush of air in your ears.  Looking at the data provided after my sessions, I did find I was improving over time, though the perfectionist in me didn’t feel it was happening fast enough. (Of course, any yogi would tell you that very statement is a part of why I’m not succeeding)

And Muse is improving as well. The app will continue to evolve over time, not only charting your progress but adding meditation tips, and possibly integration with other products (think lights or other biofeedback methods). For now, Muse does what it promises well, although for $299, it’s not for casual users just yet. Personally, though, despite my occasional frustration with my inability to get more birds to land, I didn’t find myself bored or lacking in motivation to keep trying. And for the person who has everything but serenity, Muse might just be the perfect gift this holiday.

Muse is available for $299 and is compatible with AmazonFire, Apple, and GooglePlay.