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The $299 Muse headband can read your brain – indirectly, through observing brain activity at the skin level. The headband falls within the category of wearable technology. Basically, it’s tech that you wear. Interaxon, the manufacturer, designed the headband to help users improve their meditation technique and lower anxiety. In a sense, the Muse allows users to hack their brain. Nothing like the Muse exists – nor will something like it likely ever exist. It’s one of the most unique products that I’ve ever tested.
So is the Indiegogo-funded Muse just another crowd-funded gimmick or does it actually improve one’s meditation technique? We’ll find out in this review, then we’ll be giving the Muse away.
What You Get
I applaud Interaxon’s packaging of the Muse. The packaging belies quality. The Muse itself comes in a separate, hard and clear plastic box, nestled within a well-decorated cardboard box. It includes an instruction manual and warranty card, along with a micro-USB charging cable. Based on the packaging and design, it’s clear someone put a lot of thought and effort into boxing the Muse.
Design and Aesthetics
On one hand, the Muse embodies stylish design and good build quality. There’s a headband with five metal sensor pads, lining a strip. The strip makes contact with the user’s forehead. Then there are two more sensors, located on the left and right earpieces. Along the earpiece is a silicone rubber guard, which allows it to make comfortable and snug contact with one’s ears. The headband itself can tighten so it’s easy to fit and holds its place quite well.
Above the right earpiece sits a white LED status indicator. By holding the power button down, one can switch the headband on, turn it off, or flip it into Bluetooth pairing mode. The Muse also features dual micro-USB charging ports. I’m not sure why Muse decided to go with two ports, but this redundancy allows it to continue working, even if one port goes bad. Overall, Interaxon did an excellent job designing the Muse. The aesthetic quality feels quite good, although the headband itself feels a little on the flimsy side.
How It Works
The Muse headband measures electroencephalography reading (EEG) through its sensor apparatus. Because EEG is electro-conductive, it requires that your skin produce a small amount of perspiration in order to read electrical activity at the skin-level.
The Muse pairs with an app (available on iOS, OS X and Android) which guides the user through a simplified form of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation works like this: The user attempts to relax by counting the number of breaths that they take. When paired with the Calm meditation app, the Muse displays a beach, the sounds of surf and wind, and a clouded sky. The clouds represent the user’s overall level of anxiety. By meditating, counting breaths, and relaxing, the clouds gradually dissipate.
Living With the Muse Headband
I tried a couple of meditation forms, but these don’t work with the Muse’s sensors. Essentially, Muse trains you to calm down. Meditation techniques other than mindfulness meditation won’t jell with the readings gathered from the Muse. The Muse can tell general levels of anxiety based on your brain’s EEG readings.
There’s a fairly short, although tedious, calibration period. The Calm app throws a series of questions at the user, such as “name as many colors as you can”. I assume this is intended to gauge what the user’s brain looks like when they think about a subject. Like the polygraph, it establishes a baseline for analyzing and dissecting one’s meditation technique.
The Calm app separates meditation quality into three categories:
- Calm: This is the state you want. Calm indicates, as the name suggests, that the user’s EEG readings aren’t high. As EEG readings are indicative of mental activity, scoring highly in the Calm category means your brain is working less hard. I could always tell whether or not my Calm rating would be low or high
- Neutral: Neutral States fall between Calm and Active. In general, when I score in the neutral area, I wasn’t thinking much. I was, however, still stressed out.
- Active: Active occurs when one’s baseline EEG readings are higher than neutral.
After about a week, I noticed that my calmness started to increase. Seeing a visual representation of one’s internal anxiety (which is a visual form of biofeedback), allows the user to explore what exact behaviors, sitting positions and more, result in improved calmness. While it sounds rather obvious, I learned that counting on both the inhale and exhale seemed to improve my Calm score.
To illustrate, check out my scores:
As you can see, my best meditation session came at the very end of the week. I typically score around 30-40% Calm, with the remainder being Neutral and Active.
On a personal note, I gave the Muse the so-called “Pepsi Challenge”.
Could the EEG scores be a pile of rubbish? Just random numbers not indicative of meditation experience? In theory, someone highly experienced in mindfulness meditation should score better than a meditation novice. Fortunately, I managed to find a benchmark.
My mother practices mindfulness meditation, with experience going back over a decade. She has attended day-long meditation sessions, gone on week-long retreats and is the most knowledgeable persons on meditation whom I’ve ever known. So what did her scores look like?
On her very first outing, she scored 98% Calm. Apparently, experienced meditation experts absolutely smash the Calm app. There’s not much she could learn from it. But, quite clearly, the Muse can tell the difference between trained and novice users. It does work.
Setup and Configuration
Setting up and configuring the Muse doesn’t require much effort. Simply install the Calm app on your device and initiate the Bluetooth pairing process.
The Muse likely houses an ASIC or FPGA – an integrated circuit designed to perform a limited number of functions. It includes dual micro-USB charging ports (I’m not sure why), seven different EEG-based sensors and around 4-6 hours of active use for battery life. A pulsing, white LED light situates itself on the right earpiece. The entire circlet rests comfortably on the head, clasping about the top of the ears.
At the software level, the Muse feels very much like a beta release. The Android app initially suffered from clipping around the borders, on my Nexus 7 tablet. To Interaxon’s credit, the display issues were corrected almost immediately. There’s also a disturbing lack of interactivity between the headband and the app. For example, after falling asleep wearing the device, I woke to a blazingly hot tablet. The Muse never goes to sleep, even if the user ceases interacting with the device or if the meditation session has ended. The Muse Calm app also offers a number of analysis tools. Users can access the following three features:
- Browse Your Sessions: You can look at individual meditation performances.
- Timeline View: This feature allows the user to view improvement over time.
- Insights About You: This unlockable feature never unlocked for me. I suspect that either Interaxon never finished this feature (and will add it via update later) or it’s unlockable.
The Calm app needs a lot more refinement before it’s ready for prime-time. My biggest gripe: I couldn’t get the app to work when not connected to the Internet. That’s a huge issue as not all of us (particularly those at meditation retreats) have constant Internet access.
Should you buy the Muse?
I found myself wishing that Interaxon included room for additional styles of meditation. Mindfulness meditation ranks among the most boring of techniques available. Although some scientific evidence suggests it does work, other methods are shown (in one study) to induce neurological changes – such as Integrated Body Mind Training. The iTunes App Store features a number of mindfulness meditation apps for iOS.
The Muse does work – it helps in training yourself to meditate longer and with greater efficacy. My own results show clear improvement over time. However, for $300, the average consumer off-the-street will not benefit from a meditation aid – even one that produces tangible results. $300 buys a lot of gear. I would guess that most would benefit more from a Nexus 5 or from even a Basis Health Tracker. That said, for those who meditate all the time and want something to help improve their technique, nothing will likely ever beat the Muse.
For those interested in similar bio-hacking methods, check out our list of biohacking podcasts for more information.
How do I win the Muse?
You may enter by submitting your name and email address. You’ll receive one entry simply by doing so.
After that, you’ll also be offered various methods to earn additional entries. They range from sharing a link to this giveaway on social networks; to commenting or visiting a specific page. The more you participate, the higher your chances of winning! You will receive 5 additional entries into the giveaway for every successful referral via your shared links.
This giveaway begins now and ends Friday, August 29. The winner will be selected at random and informed via email. View the list of winners here.
Congratulations, Jack Craig! You would have received an email from email@example.com. Please respond before September 8 to claim your prize. Enquires beyond this date will not be entertained.
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