Surfing Brainwaves

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: mbevin@gmail.com

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.

About Ron

To learn meditation, no matter where you are in the world, just send an email to: alohadharma@gmail.com

Posted on May 22, 2016, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Hi Ron, yes I’ve been interested in this device – I think the team is from Toronto. In any case there’s been a bit of media up here in Canada. The price point is pretty impressive for a neurofeedback device. Reading the Amazon reviews, it sounded like getting the headset in a consistent positiion was a challenge for some (because you aren’t placing the individual electrodes like in the old setup). How did you find this? Consistent data between sits?

    • It is a little tricky to get positioned correctly at first, and I kept finding that I needed to readjust it every time I put it on. After a little practice I learned how to put it on just right, and now it is no problem. The results have been pretty consistent between sits. I’m impressed with it.

  2. Hi Ron! I hope you are well 🙂

    I wonder if you answer questions on your blog from your readers. If you do, would you consider these as possible topics of discussion. Thanks!

    1. This is a question I’ve had for you for ages, but never got around to asking in our sessions: Is one of the aims of meditation to not spend as much time being lost in your thoughts throughout the day? (Ie. Not just while meditating.)

    Some context: As a result of my ability to become anxious with little provocation, I automatically found myself stopping my thoughts as soon as I noticed them (or rather, becoming aware of them and letting them go) throughout the day when I began practising all those years ago.

    Is this desired behaviour for a meditator? (If so, I wonder if it was this practice that expedited my journey into the Dark Night 🙂

    Interestingly, the practices offered by the popular app “Headspace” end with the meditator letting their mind wander, and I wonder if this is connected. Hmm!

    Speaking of which…

    2. How do you feel about “Headspace”? It’s incredibly popular (worth £25 million+), but it apparently follows the trend of not making the user aware of the Dark Night (perhaps another commenter can correct me on this, but I can’t find anything the website about it), and equally troubling (for me at least) it runs on a subscription model: Meditators are told they need to keep paying a monthly fee.

    Personally I find this ethically troubling (even though they say each subscription is shared with a low income person somewhere else in the world through charity outlets). Meditation, for me at least, is a toolset. Once you have the tools, you don’t need to keep paying people for access to them.

    If you’d rather discuss this in a session, that would be fine, too.

    Thanks, Ron! 🙂

    • Hi Johnny,
      Stopping thoughts can be a valuable part of a larger practice, but eventually you want to get to a point where they can come and go without causing distress. If they are winding up anxiety, then working with them in many different was is an important part of the practice. As far as Headspace, I don’t know much about it, so I will look into it and find out more. I’m excited by new tools for meditation, but always a little wary of DN.

      • Thanks Ron! That makes sense. There is a difference between stopping thoughts and letting them be. Something I need to keep practising, I think! (Luckily my anxiety was long gone before DN, and remains that way.)

        Also, yes. I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on the two most popular Mindfulness tools of the moment: Headspace (there’s a free trial) and the famous book that remains the number one Mindfulness bestseller: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mindfulness-practical-guide-finding-frantic/dp/074995308X/

        I’m sure both are excellent in certain ways, but the lack of information about DN in both is troubling 😦

  3. Ron,

    Very interesting post. So you get audio feedback from an app when your’ve started to veer from a calm to more agitated/anxious state while meditating?

    This leads me to wonder does such a device becomes a crutch for a meditator (perhaps more so for beginners) that is needed to get to a calm meditative state, or can it successfully train the brain to start doing certain meditative techniques all on its own thus eventually not needing the device once you’ve reached a certain degree of proficiency?

    If the latter this seems like it might be a great way to take some of the guess work and blind alleys out of the way for new meditators, and even experienced ones, especially if you don’t have access to a bonafide guru, so to speak, to help guide you.

    Thanks,

    Tim

  4. Ron, Thank you for discussing the Muse device. Before i read your post i hadn’t heard of it. I purchased one and after 5 sessions i am very impressed both as a meditator for the last 10 years and as a software/hardware engineer. I appreciate the effort required to make such a device easy to use for everyone and i think they’ve done a terrific job of teaching people how to use the device. I also value that it is revealing that i’m not as focused as i thought. I will recommend this device to friends who have tried and given up on meditating as well as those who have considerable experience. For the former group i think the Muse can resolve the fundamental problem we all have when starting to meditate, how do we know that we are doing it correctly when its all internal. Thanks for this particular blog posting and others as well.

  5. Hey Ron,

    I was searching for Bhang Avastha , a stage you arrive in vipassana and came across your website. I did a 10 days course of vipassana 2 years back. When I meditate, I don’t feel my body but flow of energy. I am feeling a energy source in my body and I can break it into hundreds of ball and they creat sensation wherever they hit my body. I can feel my brain. I can feel which part (left or right) of my brain I am using and infact the exact location on that part. During meditation I wrap my body like what you do with mummies and I feel pain. I can pierce my body with my thoughts and it pains. It’s scary sometimes. I want to explore more but I don’t know the direction.

    Anybody having such experiences?

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