- Courtesy Muse
- I tried Muse 2, a high-tech headband that pairs with a mobile app to provide guided meditation with real-time feedback on brain activity, heart rate, breathing, and more.
- The devices translate this data into soundscapes that change based on your level of calmness.
- It was sometimes difficult to properly place the device on my head, but sessions did make me feel less stressed.
I have long been intimidated by meditation. I’m terrible at letting go of thoughts that trouble me and my attention span is tragically short. Even the thought of sitting and doing nothing for a few minutes makes me restless.
But I know that I could probably benefit from a regular meditation practice. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that it has real benefits for the brain and body. Meditating appears to improve focus, decrease stress, and has been linked with lower blood pressure and reduced feelings of depression and anxiety, as Business Insider’s Erin Brodwin has reported.
So when I was offered the chance to try Muse 2 – a brain- and body-sensing headband that’s meant to help demystify meditation – I saw it as an opportunity.
Muse 2 was released in October 2018, roughly four years after the launch of the original Muse, a headband that tracked electrical activity in the brain using electroencephalography (EEG) sensors.
The new version still monitors brain activity, but it’s also equipped with additional sensors that measure heart rate, breathing, and body movement. Now, using the headband and the companion mobile app, users can choose from four different types of meditation: Mind, heart, body, and breath.
In meditation sessions, Muse 2 and the app translate those bodily functions into real-time feedback, synthesizing soundscapes that let you know how calm (or not) you really are.
- Caroline Praderio/INSIDER
“We’d always been focused very heavily on the mind, but if you can’t calm your body, there is no way you’re going to calm your mind,” Chris Aimone, Muse’s co-founder and chief technology officer, told INSIDER in an interview in October 2018. “The main difference with this new version is we’re now giving feedback on other things as well as the brain.”
“Meditation is a holistic experience,” he added. “Our goal with this new Muse is to try to honor that.”
Here’s what happened when I tried Muse 2 as a meditation novice.
Muse meditations start by firing up the mobile app
- Courtesy Muse
To start using Muse, you first launch the mobile app (available for Apple and Android devices) and choose which kind of meditation you want: Mind, heart, body, or breath. From there, you can choose a time length for your session, from one minute all the way up to an hour.
Some categories have additional customizable options. In mind sessions, for example, you can choose from an array of soundscapes to accompany your meditation, like rainforest, beach, and desert. (I was partial to the one called “City Park.”)
You can also choose from guided exercises, or opt to meditate with no instructions at all.
When you’ve locked in your options, you put on the headband, which connects to your mobile device via Bluetooth. Then you get started.
Each type of meditation is different.
The goal of mind meditations is to calm the brain. You sit in a comfortable position, eyes closed, and attempt to let thoughts drift away. All the while, the app translates your brain activity into a soundscape. When your brain is calm, the sounds are peaceful, and when your brain is active, they’re more chaotic – think rumbling traffic or heavy winds. (This dynamic takes some getting used to, especially since the chaotic sounds might trigger more thoughts or stress at first.)
Heart meditations emphasize awareness of your heartbeat. The aim is to notice how it changes from moment to moment and, hopefully, keep it in a slow, calm range. In the app, your actual heartbeat is represented by a drum beat that speeds up and slows down in real time.
Body meditations are all about staying still. If you move, the app produces the sound of wind chimes.
“The model is actually having a virtual set of wind chimes that encircle the body,” Aimone said. “Whenever you adjust your posture or fidget, this causes a collision with these virtual wind chimes and causes the sound to happen.”
- Caroline Praderio/INSIDER
In breath meditations, the goal is to breathe rhythmically along with a guide. Ticking sounds signal that it’s time to inhale, and a whooshing sound indicates an exhale. If your breaths match the guide, the app produces pleasant, harmonic tones.
Once each session ends, you can type a quick journal entry about how it went, use a frowny-to-smiley-face scale to document your mood, and look through data about your performance.
The in-app scoring system wasn’t helpful for me, but others may find it useful for motivation
Muse 2 doesn’t just provide real-time feedback. Once a session ends, you’re provided a deluge of data tracking your performance.
First, there are line graphs showing how your heartbeat, brain activity, movement, or breathing fluctuated throughout a session. Then, there are simple point totals based on how calm you were: Heart, body, and breathing meditations net “Muse Points,” while mind meditations get you “Calm Points.”
- Caroline Praderio/INSIDER
You receive stars for “recoveries” – moments when you’re able to rein in a quickening heartbeat or calm an active brain, for example. You’ll also see a measure for “birds.” In some meditations, bird chirps represent an extended period of calm – they’re a little like bonus points.
There are awards, too. During one mind meditation, I got the “Quiet Award,” given for spending more than two minutes “in a state of restful focus.”
On one hand, metrics like these could be a useful way to motivate yourself or track progress. But I wondered if points and awards for meditating have the potential to be distracting. A blip in your thoughts or breathing could spark worries about how your score will be impacted, possibly thwarting a calm state.
Balancing these two perspectives has been a challenge for the Muse team, Aimone told INSIDER.
“In general we move further and further away from having quantified metrics, but it’s a challenge because I would say the majority of people come to a product like this with the expectation [of metrics],” he said. “So there’s the problem of both meeting their expectation but ultimately trying to lead people away from it being a goal-oriented activity … We try to establish a balance where the score isn’t [a place] where judgment begins. The journey has to be one where ultimately the score becomes less important.”
I acknowledge that other people may find this post-session data useful for tracking progress. But it didn’t feel especially helpful to me, as the real-time, ever-shifting soundscapes during my meditations were enough on their own.
The device is pricey and the sensors were sometimes fussy
- Courtesy Muse
Muse 2’s $249 price tag is high, especially when there are some meditation apps and guides available for less money or for free. But if you have the cash, and you think you’d be lost trying to meditate without some type of feedback, the headband could be a good investment.
My other major qualm: It was sometimes tough to properly place the device on my head.
Before each meditation, the app confirms that the appropriate sensor is clearly reading the body signal it’s supposed to track. In my experience, it was occasionally tricky to ensure that all seven EEG sensors were in the right place and tracking electrical activity in my brain. Sometimes it took several minutes of waiting or fiddling with headband placement before I could start. Once I had to restart the headband and app altogether.
I tried the earlier Muse headband a few years ago while working for a different publication, and had the same issue back then, so maybe it’s something to do with my head shape or my skin. Still, waiting for the sensors to find their sweet spot was mildly frustrating.
But I loved the bevy of meditation options, and even short sessions made me feel calmer
I meditated 10 times during a week in late 2018, with a few refresher sessions at the start of 2019. I tried all four types of meditation in sessions ranging from three to 10 minutes long.
While I can’t speak to long-term changes in my mental state, the sessions did make me feel calmer and less stressed right after I finished them. I appreciated that perk since chronic stress is known to sap sleep quality, exacerbate skin problems like acne and eczema, and negatively affect other aspects of health.
I particularly liked completing one or two sessions just before bed. I found closing my eyes and eliminating distractions, even for just three minutes, set a good foundation for falling asleep.
- Courtesy Muse
My favorite session of all was a 10-minute body meditation. Staying still for that long allowed the muscles in shoulders, back, and arms to really relax; when time was up, my hands felt pleasantly heavy resting in my lap.
I also had some difficulties. The breathing sessions sometimes left me lightheaded. I struggled to keep my heart rate in the low, relaxed range determined by the app.
The mind meditations were the most challenging. At first, when I heard those you’re-not-calm noises filter into the soundscape, I felt like the session was a bust. Sometimes that thought launched a cycle of even more brain activity and I felt powerless to calm my mind.
I’m sure that my meditating abilities would improve with long-term practice. But in my brief time using Muse 2, I had the most success – not points-wise, just experience-wise – when I accepted those bouts of intense brain activity, rather than judging myself for them.
They also provided an opportunity for reflection. On nights when my mind-meditation soundscape sounded like a hurricane, I was prompted to think about the reasons why, then mull over concrete steps I might take to help myself feel calmer.
Plus, these struggles made me extra appreciative of Muse 2’s multiple meditation options beyond the brain-based sessions. The body, heart, and breath meditations all allow more control and agency. Even if you’re thinking in circles, you could probably manage to sit still for a few minutes or practice slow breathing. These options can help cut down on discouragement, Aimone explained.
“Take, for example, the body meditation,” he said. “If someone finds themselves fidgeting in their practice, it’s not as frustrating an experience as having a busy mind and not being able to calm it.”
Plus, the variety kept me interested in coming back to the app. I think it’s harder to get bored of a meditation habit when you can design a unique experience each day.
To purchase or learn more about Muse 2, visit the Muse website.
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