Modern technology is great, it connects us but it also means we are reachable around the clock. Needless to say, this makes it difficult to switch off. It can also can increase pressure to act faster than what would have previously been acceptable.
But this same technology can also be used to combat high levels of stress. This can not only make you feel better right now, it may also protect your health in the long-term. Stress is often called the silent killer for a reason.
One solution is to opt for a smartphone app. There are literally hundreds out there designed for peaceful reflection. Many fitness trackers and smartwatches also come with stress-busting features baked in. Breathing exercises can, for example, be found on the Apple Watch, Fitbits and Garmin sports watches. It’s no longer simply about counting steps and calories.
Essential reading: Top fitness trackers and health gadgets
But there might be an even better way to train your mind. A growing number of gadgets are being designed specifically for meditation. These are called biofeedback headsets and typically use high tech to gauge your brainwaves.
Muse is one such device. It detects changes by using EEG sensors along the scalp. The latest generation product slaps on a heart rate monitor, as well as an accelerometer and gyroscope to monitor body movement and breath in addition to your brain.
I’ve been using Muse 2 for the past few weeks. Did it help in my quest for a more tranquil mind? Read on to find out.
How to connect Muse and start your first session
Types of meditation
Feedback and features
Stress is all around us and we have all devised a variety of ways to deal with it, some healthy others not so much. The aim of Muse is to teach you the essentials of meditation, to provide you with motivation to stick to the practice and to track your progress over time.
After more than a decade of research, the first generation product was released in 2014. A second iteration of the original came out in 2016. Toronto-based InteraXon followed this up last year with a revamped version which, rather confusingly, is called Muse 2.
The gizmo consists of a headband that connects wirelessly to your phone or tablet. But rather than on top of your head, Muse sits against the middle of your forehead and secures around the back of your ears similar to a pair of glasses. There’s a single button on the right which is used to switch it on and off and a white LED indicator.
The latest generation has a sleeker and lower profile than the previous ones and a soft-touch finish. As mentioned, it also comes packing all-new sensors.
The headband weighs only 40 grams so is very lightweight. When wearing, it is important to secure a good fit. The hold can be made tighter or looser by pushing the slidable ends in or out. This is important because Muse needs good contact with your skin in order to obtain an accurate reading.
The accompanying smartphone app will warn you if the sensors are not positioned properly and ask you to readjust. It checks for 3 seconds of good quality signal to do a session. I actually didn’t find this too much of a problem and it was only on the odd occasion that the app would ask me to readjust. The second time around it would always be happy.
All generations of Muse are designed to give you a glimpse into your brainwave activity. They measure electrical signals similar to how a heart monitor tracks pulse. Your brain is constantly generating noise when you’re talking, thinking and sleeping. Muse picks up on this and lets you know what’s happening inside your head.
Muse 2 goes further than previous devices in that it also provides real-time feedback from the heart, breath and body. This provides you with a more holistic view of your meditation practice and spits out more ways to improve it.
The gizmo has a variety of sensors onboard. This includes five EEG sensors along the front strip to gauge the state of your mind. There’s a PPG sensor next to them which monitors heart rate and blood flow in your forehead. Finally, the accelerometer and gyroscope sit on the sides and monitor your body movements and breathing.
Made of flexible plastic with some metal components the product seems very smart looking and secure when in place. Having said that, it does feel a bit fragile and I’m not sure if it would survive if I was to accidentally step on it.
Despite the picture above, it’s also not something I would want to be seen wearing in public. Not a problem as users are most likely to meditate in the comfort of their home where the headband will not attract curious stares. But Muse is very portable and even comes with an optional carrying case. Ideal for trips and holidays.
The battery life is pretty decent, as well. Muse 2 will keep going for up to 5 hours between charges. The light bar on the right ear shows the battery level. I typically meditate up to half an hour a day so only reached for the charger every 10 days or so.
To refuel, simply plug one end of the charging cable into a USB port and the other end into Muse. It takes between two and three hours to go from zero to full. You will know your Muse is charged when you see the lights move back and forth in a wave pattern (while still plugged in).
In order to use Muse you’ll first need to download and install the Android or iOS app on your smartphone or tablet. You’ll be taken through a few set-up questions when creating your account. Multiple people can use the same Muse by creating different accounts using individual email addresses.
As with most rechargeable gadgets, it is required that you fully charge your Muse prior to the first session. You’ll also need to pair it with your smart device which is done via the app. From then on, the headset should automatically connect whenever you open the app.
I generally found this to be the case. On the odd occasion I would need to switch Muse on and off twice because it did not connect the first time. Not something that annoyed me as it happened very rarely.
To start the first session switch Muse on and secure it around your head. Open the app and let it pair. You’ll then be taken to a “Meditate” screen. This is where you can choose the type of session. The choice consists of Mind Meditation, Heart Meditation, Body Meditation, Breath Meditation and Timer.
This is also where you can choose the length of meditation and soundscape. There are various ones you can download (depending on the type of meditation), such as Beach, Rainforest, Desert, City Park and more. These are the sounds you’ll hear in the background while you’re meditating.
Apart from Timer, all meditations also have exercises. These are designed to enable you to become better at certain aspects of the practice.
The first lessons are about being aware of what your body is doing, the later ones are more advanced. These are chosen for you as you progress but you can always revisit any exercise or opt for no instructions. Muse remembers your choice so picks up from where you left off next time around. Users can also download a range of different lessons from third-party sources.
The next step is calibration. The app will check that all of the various sensors on Muse are properly positioned. There’s a guide presented in the form of a pie chart with a section for each sensor. The slices of the pie then fill up when the individual sensors establish a good quality signal. This typically takes no more than 20-30 seconds depending on the type of session. During this practice you will need to sit quietly as if you were meditating.
It’s worth mentioning, there is an audio explainer that takes you through the whole process. Once you’ve done the calibration she will explain the exercise for the session (if there is one) and what you need to do to master it. You can then proceed to meditating. A timer will then appear on the screen which will do a countdown letting you know when you’re done.
After a few weeks I preferred to turn the voice and exercises off and just cut to the main event. Occasionally I would also turn the volume down on my smartphone so as not to hear the landscape. This way I could test how well I’ve done as if I were meditating without a headset.
Apart from the sleeker design and more comfortable wear, the main reason to purchase Muse 2 over previous iterations are the additional sensors. They allow Muse to gauge other vitals such as heart rate and breath. The sensors used are dependent on the type of meditation session you’ve chosen.
A mind meditation taps into information from the 5 EEG sensors to gauge the state of your mind. If, for example, you choose the rainforest soundscape, you’ll hear the sound of heavy rain when your mind starts wondering and light rain if your calming your mind. At the end you’ll receive an assessment on how well you’ve done.
Muse detect all five bands of brainwave activity including Delta, Theta, Alpha, Beta and Gamma waves. Alpha waves are the most common that occur during meditation.
I found Muse to be incredibly sensitive. The changes would instantaneously be reflected through sounds which was pretty impressive to witness. It was also eye opening on just how easy it is to lose focus. This type of meditation will probably be the most difficult to master for most people. My score varied widely, depending on how calm I was going into the session.
As its name implies, heart meditation reads your heart rate. It consists of exercises such as “Influencing Your Heart” and “Slowing Down”. Your quickening or slowing pulse is represented by the sound of a drum. You typically get awarded the same amount of points each time you finish although the app will flag (in percentage points), how much above or below your were from your average heart rate.
The goal of body meditation is to teach you to be perfectly still while meditating and have a relaxed body posture. The sound of wind chimes shows the nuances of your movements based on readings from the built-in accelerometer.
Breath meditation lessons are there to help you learn when to breathe in and out to achieve a more relaxed state. A voice guides you along with ambient noise on the inhale and a whooshing sound on the exhale. At the moment there are only two exercises with more to be added. At the end of the session you’ll get a percentage assessment on just how much in harmony you were with the breathing guide.
The last type of session is a simple timer. This is for those times when you are not interested in lessons, scoring and simply need a countdown timer.
All in all, I found most types of meditations fairly easy to master. The mind meditation was by far the most difficult followed by the breath meditation. Their results were also the most detailed out of the five in terms of scoring. Other meditations typically award you a fixed score although you are shown a detailed graph of the session.
Unfortunately Muse has not yet developed something that taps into all the sensors at once to provide you with a combined score. It would be interesting to have a session where you are awarded points for your mind, heart and body. Perhaps an idea for something that could be introduced via a software update.
The app is a fairly straightforward affair. There’s a dashboard with a chart of your meditation history. If you click on it, it will transition into a detailed timeline. You can then open stats for each individual session.
The main screen also shows a running total of all your meditations. If you scroll all the way down you’ll notice weekly goals and challenges along with the latest milestones you’ve hit. All of this is bright and colourful and very easy to identify.
Along with a graph of the session, each meditation is assigned a score that consists of Muse Points, Recoveries and Birds. Muse Points are awarded for every second you meditate. The longer you meditate, the more points you get. Recoveries represent effort spent noticing and recovering from your distractions. This builds your skills to focus. Finally, Birds indicate that you’ve had sustained periods of calm. You want to collect as many of these as you can.
There are various other stats depending on the type of session. For example, the Mind Meditation quantifies periods when your mind was active, neutral and calm. The Breath Meditation shows how in sync your breathing was with the Guide.
All this is well and good but it is perhaps a bit too “New Agey” for my liking. I can’t help but feel that perhaps Muse is trying to do too much in terms of simplifying the analysis.
I would have liked to get raw data instead of some of these metrics. So a heart rate value rather than a percentage on how much you deviated from your average, or an overview of actual Delta, Theta, Alpha, Beta and Gamma brainwave activity. This would also go a long way towards helping those more advanced at meditating. There is an app called Muse Direct that you can subscribe to for a fee which will provide you with this raw data.
Having said that, the free app does a decent job of providing you with a snapshot of activity and indicator on how well you’ve done. If you meditate daily, everything will be recorded and quantified for you.
Muse 2 slaps on a heart rate monitor, as well as an accelerometer and gyroscope to monitor body movement and breath in addition to your brain. This makes the device much better than its predecessors. It now provides you with a more holistic view of your sessions.
I found Muse 2 made meditating more interesting. The changes in my mind or body would instantaneously be reflected through sounds which was pretty impressive to witness. It was also eye opening on just how easy it is to lose focus.
During the few weeks of testing, Muse 2 provided me with motivation to make sure I set time each and every day for peaceful reflection. All the sensors worked well and the app did a good job in quantifying my progress over time.
Having said that, I would have liked to see more analysis and raw data in the app. There is separate software you can download to view and record raw data. This does come at a fee, though.
With its lessons and guidance, the headband also thought me a thing or two on how to get better at the practice. And InteraXon has a body of third party scientific research evidencing its effectiveness such as this study from the University of Milan.
Muse 2 is as good as it gets right now if you’re looking for a biofeedback meditation headset. It might not be for everyone, but if you have the budget and your aim is to meditate more and improve your focus, the device certainly can help.
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