I have been wearing what looks like a sci-fi headband these days when I meditate, a small portable EEG device called a Muse. If you think people meditating look a little funny (I do), just wait until these become more common.
The headband belongs to Michael Bevin, an entrepreneur and meditator who is interested in the intersection of technology and contemplative practices. As EEG technology has become more accessible to regular people he has been investigating whether it can be used to help meditators learn specific practices. Normally I’m skeptical of what I think of as meditation-related gimmicks. Binaural beats, special high-priced mantras, blessed images, or even brainwave technology, which often seems to straddle the twilight world between actual science and, well, everything else our minds produce. But Michael’s idea is a smart one and it just might work. The EEG literature on meditation is decades old but a lot of it is based on small samples, inexperienced meditators, and a lack of clarity when it comes to different types of meditation. That means that many of the EEG programs for meditation, when they are based on research, are not that helpful. Michael is trying to correct for this by creating a brainwave databank of experienced meditators doing different kinds of meditation. With that data he will try to zero in on the common characteristics that experienced meditators have when they do different meditations, and then hopes create a program that assists new meditators in tuning their own brainwaves to those key characteristics through live feedback. Michael approached me several months ago and asked if I would be interested in donating to the brainwave bank by letting him peek inside my head while I meditate. Being the geek I am, I jumped at the chance.
It has been a fun learning experience. What I’ve learned about my own brain when I meditate is that it likes to make alpha waves and delta waves during both insight and concentration meditation, but the combination and pattern is different for each kind of meditation. Alpha waves are very sensitive to how mindful and investigative I am when I meditate, and they seem to drop the second I am distracted (such as whenever I peek to see how high they just went) or if I do anything intentional during the meditation. Delta goes higher as the factors of relaxation and equanimity increase. This makes sense from the little I have read about them. Delta seems to be associated with deep states of sleep and relaxation, while alpha are associated with present-moment focus, creativity, and positive mood. Beta, which drops significantly during my meditation, is associated with busy, anxious thinking and active problem-solving. Michael’s program allows the user to look at live recordings of brainwaves in vivo, which means I was learning these things about my brain as they were happening. That has an interesting upside: it allows me to play with the waves deliberately. Simply by changing my focus from one-pointed to choiceless, or shifting to a different meditative state, or developing a specific factor, I can intentionally cause different kinds of waves to go higher or lower. It’s surfing brainwaves.
Of course, some people will hate the idea of wearing any gadget when they meditate, or quantifying anything related to contemplative practices. I get that, and if that is you, this is not the right technology for you. But if you are a sciency meditator, the kind that reads brain research for fun and stares at fMRI images like they are Hubble Deep Field pictures, then this technology is going to awaken the nerd in you.
Michael is interested in getting more experienced meditators to donate to his brainwave bank, so if you are interested in making a donation, here is how it works. You download Michael’s program, called “Brain Yoga” from here, and each time you meditate you open the program and put on the EEG (you will need to get one here). The program records your brainwaves as you meditate and saves the data to a drive in the cloud. If you would like to try it or have questions, you can contact Michael at: firstname.lastname@example.org
UPDATE (5/29/16): The new Muse headsets have some difficulty connecting with some devices. If you are thinking of getting one and would like to try Michael’s program, please email him first to check if the new headset is compatible with your device.