Tech + Health

04.14.14

High-Tech Meditation: Swap Your Yogi for a Headset

The positives of meditation are many, but mastering the practice can be a challenge. Enter NeuroSky, an EEG headset that detects brainwaves and helps you reach peak mental state.

I’ve always wanted to join the ranks of those who are able to generate calm and focus in their lives using ancient mindfulness techniques, but it was hard to learn with overwhelming attention deficit. The frustrating difficulty is that meditation, perhaps unlike any other skill, cannot be observed. I can’t pay a coach to tell me if I’m “focused” or not.

Fortunately, there is new tech to the rescue: inexpensive, commercial-grade brainwave readers. For around $100, I strap on the NeuroSky, a headset that supplements my daily meditation routine with software that tells me when I’m focused or spaced-out.

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Cognitive scientists have long known that concentration is associated with brain-wave patterns observable through Electroencephalography (EEG). Combining wearable technology that detects certain brainwaves, scientists have designed software that alerts users with sights and sounds when they’re in a desired mental state. The experimental practice, known as “neurofeedback” has been growing in popularity as a drug-free alternative for Attention Deficit Disorder.

“Mobile neurofeedback systems and protocols that are derived and extend upon meditative traditions and practices offer a promising new direction and platform in mobile technology,” write Tracy Brandmeyer and Arnaud Delorme in Frontiers of Psychology. “These technologies would be not only for people who have taken interest in these kinds of practices or people who have already established themselves in a meditative practice, but for people who are looking for new methods to train, improve, and develop attention and emotion regulation.”

For myself, the NeuroSky is a convenient, portable EEG device that provides most of the rudimentary meditation help I need. Whenever I’m feeling spacey or tired, I strap on the headset, hook it up to my iPhone via Bluetooth, and try to raise my “meditation” and “attention” score (image below). After 10 minutes or so, I feel like I drank a small cup of coffee—minus the jitters.

Computer-guided meditation is nice for those of us who have difficultly even understanding what focus feels like. To be sure, computer-guided meditation can be a very frustrating experience. It took me a while to understand how to get high scores on the software, mostly because I was meditating all wrong. Meditation isn’t forceful concentration, but a silencing of the mind. Before I figured this out, I spent many hours cursing at the technology on my head.

Now, to be sure, neurofeedback is a controversial science, with a mixed history of clinical success. Even for those who believe in the benefits of neurofeedback, there is broad disagreement about which brain waves to look for. Engineers at the well-funded InterXIon, which is building a behind-the-ear alternative to NeuroSky called Muse, tell me that they look for much different brain wave patterns.

But, the basics of being calm, listening, and silencing one’s inner voice are a staple of any meditation. While we may not know the very best ways to design computer-guided meditation, any assistance can be enormously beneficial. For me, technology is a delightfully helpful crutch to scaffold me into more advanced meditative practices.

NeuroSky is available now for around $130. Muse will be available sometime later this year for around $200.