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Martha Neary

Martha Neary is the PsyberGuide Project Manager, based at University of California, Irvine. Martha’s broad and varied research interests include healthcare disparities among minority populations, the integration of technology into mental health interventions, and early education, particularly in the areas of health and sexuality.

Over the past year, I’ve been growing in my meditation practice. In this same period, digital products for meditation have been growing as well. According to internet search data, apps are fast becoming one of the most sought after resources for mindfulness. I’ve used various meditation apps to help me establish a more regular meditation practice but of course, I still face challenges; some days I feel side-tracked by every little thought that comes to mind during my practice. So as a meditator and digital mental health nerd, I was eager to try out Muse, which claims to give me real-time feedback on my brain activity to help make meditation easier and keep me focused.

Muse is a headband with sensors to detect brain activity (Muse uses a common psychophysiological assessment, an electroencephalogram or EEG, that measures brain waves). Muse translates this brain activity into weather sounds which you listen to through the companion app. If your mind is busy, you’ll hear stormy weather; if it’s calm, you hear peaceful weather and birds chirping.

I was excited to start my Muse journey and began my first meditation with a one-minute calibration exercise, which users are required to complete before each session. The brain waves detected during this calibration exercise act as a baseline, against which Muse determines brain activity to be comparatively distracted or calm. This calibration exercise aims to reflect an everyday mental state: Muse’s soothing narrator asks us to just sit and let the mind go where it goes. Straight away, I was somewhat skeptical about whether to not Muse really captured an accurate picture of my mental state in everyday life. Despite the narrator’s directions, I definitely found I made a conscious effort to calm my mind during these calibrations.

My first-time user experience was positive overall: the app is visually appealing and easy to use, both of which are important to me, and it was an interesting novelty to receive auditory feedback on my mental states. When meditating, sometimes it can take me a while to even realize my mind has wandered; but with Muse, just as I was starting to follow a thought down a rabbit hole, I received an auditory prompt to bring my attention back to my breath.

After my first few sessions with Muse, I began to get curious about response times. When the weather gets louder, I wondered if that was because my mind was currently wandering, or because it wandered 2 seconds ago, 5 seconds ago… Some research into this issue told me that the lag time is about half a second, according to the Muse team, which doesn’t seem so bad. Of course, while I was mulling this over each time I used Muse, the weather sounds had reached a tornado-like state.

Over the course of my month with Muse, the novelty started to wear off. I began to doubt if Muse was actually helping me improve my meditation practice. Each time I heard stormy weather sounds I thought “Uh-oh, my mind’s wandering” — but Muse didn’t really provide much substantive guidance as to how I could stop my mind from wandering in the first place. I found this lack of direction challenging. If I was having a particularly distracted day and struggled with stormy weather throughout my five-minute meditation, I just had to ride out the five minutes. I also questioned how much Muse aligned with my goals in meditation, and if I should really be relying on an external source of feedback when meditating. For me, that’s not what meditation is about. The reason I’ve made meditation a more regular part of my everyday routine is that I want to learn to settle my mind myself, without relying on an external source.

Ultimately, I’m unsure if Muse really teaches sustainable meditation skills, due to the lack of skills-teaching and the fact that it encourages meditators to rely on external feedback. I do think it’s a fun tool which may be helpful for people meditating for the first time; it’s novel to receive feedback on brain activity and I don’t know of any other meditation tools that can provide this in a real-time way. Had I had some sort of feedback device like this when I first started meditating, I probably would have found things a bit easier… but then again, that’s all part of the meditation journey and the fun of learning something new.

*Note: This review was conducted with the original version of Muse which was released in 2014. A new version of the headband, the Muse 2, expands on the original version by introducing additional sensors to measure heart, body, and breath.