“There’s an app for that.” It’s like a mantra these days, isn’t it? And why not? For almost every conceivable human activity or interest, there’s a tech gadget waiting to help you, and a tech company ready to relieve you of some of your money. The biggest trend from the past few years has been mindfulness and self-caring tech, a category that exploded in 2017. Between iOS and Android, there are now some 3,000 apps dedicated to helping people help themselves. With promised payoffs like better sleep, reduced stress, an improved focus at work, and a better overall level of health, it’s no wonder that mindfulness, and its accompanying activity, meditation, are now very big businesses. There’s just one problem: No one really knows if these apps work.
It’s a dilemma — can you really rely on someone’s highly subjective mood to determine if listening to a guided meditation app has actually resulted in a greater sense of calm, and focus? A professional mediation teacher has the skill to observe you as you sit still, with your eyes closed, and instinctively understand how to help you improve. How can an app, designed to passively play instructions accompanied by soothing sounds, have any idea how you’re doing?
It can’t, of course, which is why Toronto-based tech start-up, Interaxon, developed the Muse. It’s a headband that communicates with your smartphone or tablet over Bluetooth, and can give you real-time feedback on your level of calm. The Muse does this by measuring your brain activity via EEG, which is turned into sounds you can hear while meditating. The Muse app gives you a choice of soundscapes, like Rainforest, or Beach. During your session, these environments experience “weather” that correlates to your level of calm. An active mind will hear heavy rainfall and wind, while a calm one will experience only a gentle breeze. If you’re successful in preserving your sense of calm longer than a split-second, birdsong will cheerfully let you know that you’re experiencing an ideal level of focus and serenity.
Earlier this year, the company released the second version of the product — the $299 Muse 2, which adds heart rate, breathing, and body movements tracking to the EEG component — and offered us a chance to try it out. We were eager to find out if strapping a device to our head could really be the key to serenity.
Using the Muse 2 is easy — you perch the earpads over your ears, just like putting on a pair of glasses, and then snug the headband around the middle of your forehead. It’s very lightweight, and we found it comfortable enough to wear for up to 30 minutes at a time. After that, you begin to notice the sensor strip pressing against your forehead. It’s made of flexible plastic, but the bottom edge is very thin, and can create a pressure point over time.
The Muse 2 is very precise, but this means it’s also a bit finicky. If you’ve got long hair, you may have to play with the positioning to get things just right. It’s also not very glasses-friendly. Because its earpads occupy the same position as glasses do, it’s unlikely you’ll find a way to use both — at least, not comfortably. Of course, 90 percent of your time with the Muse will be spent with your eyes closed, but we’re not going to lie: It would be easier to relax if we didn’t have to keep bringing our glasses up to our face to use the app!
The app itself is mercifully uncluttered. The “Me” tab gives you a running tally on your meditation sessions, helping you understand how you’ve progressed over time. It counts your total meditation time, awards you “muse points” for that effort, and keeps score of the number of “birds” (truly calm moments) and recoveries (times when you’ve brought yourself back to a calmer moment after a spike in activity) you’ve racked up.
The main focus is rightfully on the “Meditate” tab, which is where you begin and end your sessions. The first Muse can only track brain activity, so “mind meditation” is your only option with that product. The Muse 2 opens up the possibility of doing heart, body, and breath meditations too. Each type of meditation comes with its own soundscape — the aural feedback you get through your earphones during a session. At the moment, only the mind meditation offers you a choice of five soundscapes: Beach, Rainforest, Desert, City Park, and Ambient Music.
If you’ve ever tried other meditation apps like Calm, you may be surprised at how little “talk” there is. Though each meditation session begins with a guided introduction, it’s often very short, and simply prompts you to think about a different aspect of your body or mind. The rest of your time is spent listening to the real-time feedback from the part of your body being tracked. This feedback varies based on the meditation you choose. Your state of mind is reflected by the sounds of weather, your heartbeat is represented by a rhythmic drumming, your body movements by wind chimes, and your breathing is marked by two sustained piano notes — a high note for inhaling and a lower note for exhaling. Your virtual instructor never interrupts, and only returns at the end of the session to prompt you to think about how it went, and what you experienced.
This approach — with its circular pattern of listening to feedback, altering your thoughts or body movement, and then listening to the feedback, is unique, and makes meditating using the Muse an oddly addictive activity.
The feedback turns the act of meditating into a video game of sorts. If you’ve ever played the Nintendo Wii Fit games, using Nintendo’s Balance Board, you know what we mean. This isn’t accidental — the team at Muse acknowledged being inspired by the work Nintendo has done in this area. The question is, should an activity like meditation be gamified? Does it help promote better meditation technique, and ultimately help you to achieve a greater state of calm?
We’d argue, yes — at least if you’re going to establish a meditation routine without the help of a teacher. Until such time as AI progresses to the point where it can replace a human teacher (scary thought!) the Muse’s biometric feedback is the next best thing. However, it’s not without some potential drawbacks.
Having an objective measure of your state of calm, as the Muse app can provide, is valuable. As the saying goes, “whatever gets measured, gets improved.” But as with any long-term goal, like weight loss, smoking cessation, or training for a favourite sport, there’s bound to be ups and downs. Our first session with the Muse 2 was amazing: a 5 minute period during which we managed to achieve an 85 percent level of calm (85 percent of our time, measured brain activity was in the “calm” zone). Subsequent sessions however, weren’t as rewarding, with calmness levels hovering around the 35 percent mark. This led to feelings of frustration (why wasn’t I as calm?) and an increased sense of anxiety in the sessions that followed, as birdsong failed to materialize despite efforts to make that happen.
Without a human coach with whom we could discuss these concerns, it took more discipline to stick with a daily meditation schedule. This is the double-edged sword of Muse’s measurements: If you’re motivated by real-world stats, it’s all the encouragement you need to keep going, with the intent of improving your score. If you’re the kind of person who stares at the numbers on a body-weight scale and gets depressed when they refuse to budge downwards, your calm score might simply frustrate you.
Overall however, our four weeks spent with the Muse 2 were enjoyable. Because meditation is so personal, and affects everyone differently, the only way to know if it’s “working,” is to take stock of how you feel. It can take months for a meditation regimen to deliver changes that you can notice. In the meantime, how do you know if you’re doing it right? Using the Muse 2 addresses both of these concerns, by not only helping you adjust your meditation technique in real-time, but also by showing you the results of having done so.
Meditation experts agree: The key to seeing results is to meditate regularly, integrating it into your life as you would any good habit, like eating well, or getting exercise. Despite the ups and downs of our day-to-day results, the more we used Muse, the more we wanted to meditate. We’d say that’s a good reason to try it out.
The Muse and Muse 2 come with a 30-day return policy and a one-year warranty period.