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My Mind on Muse, the Tech Meditation Headset — The Revealer

(Picture supply: Muse)

This essay was produced in collaboration with the Ministry of Concepts podcast for his or her “Illuminations” sequence.

Unboxing

“If I’m ever going to have a religious unboxing expertise, this shall be it,” I joked to my spouse final summer season, gripping the pull tab of a white package deal that had arrived on our porch. Inside was the Muse S, a consumer-grade mind measurement machine that creates immersive meditation soundscapes primarily based on the person’s psychological exercise. This factor was going to show my mind waves into music.

Created by the Toronto-based firm InteraXon, the Muse S is marketed as a “comfortable mind sensing headband that helps you perceive and observe how properly you focus, sleep, and recharge so you’ll be able to refocus throughout the day and get well every evening.” The gentle headband is fitted with 4 electroencephalography (EEG) sensors that measure electrical exercise in your scalp. Muse sends this information to a smartphone app that may play guided meditation periods, observe sleep, and award motivational factors.

What units Muse aside from different wearable gadgets, just like the Apple Watch or Fitbit, is that it doesn’t simply measure your well being—it additionally guides your ideas, in real-time, utilizing “soundscapes” of music and nature noises which might be purported to symbolize your psychological state. Whilst you meditate with Muse, the machine data your mind information and converts it into ambient sounds, utilizing a proprietary algorithm. You may hear thunder whereas getting distracted after which hear calm rain when your thoughts is clearer.

If this looks as if a mere novelty to you, take into account these numbers: Muse has greater than 500,000 customers globally, and its dad or mum firm InteraXon generates an estimated $13.48 million in annual gross sales, as reported by the enterprise analytics firm Dun & Bradstreet. In accordance with a 2021 press launch, InteraXon has saved over 100 million minutes of customers’ meditation information, which quantities to one of many largest mind information collections on this planet. This places Muse on the forefront of the “biofeedback” business, the place sensible gadgets generate real-time information for ongoing self-improvement.

Once I first discovered about Muse, by a focused commercial on Twitter, I needed one. My first thought was that making music with my thoughts could be extraordinarily cool and enjoyable at events. It additionally gave the impression to be consistent with different know-how that I personal: I take advantage of a wise scale to file my weight and a smartwatch to measure my heartbeat, so why not a wise headband to trace my psychological states? As a scholar of faith and science, I used to be additionally on this unusual new hybrid of know-how and spirituality. Persons are utilizing science helmets for every day rituals? Sure, please.

Then, on second thought, I frightened that this new wisdom-wearable may portend some dystopia. Will we quickly reside in a world the place shopper tech is continually measuring our minds, intervening in our ideas, and harvesting our mind information, all whereas promising to make us really feel higher? Has TikTok already made me a shopper cyborg, anyway? Or am I catastrophizing once more, as a consequence of some underlying nervousness dysfunction that this factor is sarcastically supposed to assist remedy? I used to be torn.

So once I joined Harvard Divinity College’s Ministry of Concepts podcast final yr as a producer, my first pitch was on a narrative about Muse. (“Let me get one and put on it,” I stated, “it is going to be nice tape!”) Together with co-producer Atéha Bailly, I spent the summer season diving into the world of Muse, faith, and neuroscience. We listened to the sounds of my mind, interviewed students, neuroscientists, and the corporate’s CEO, and researched the mental and racial historical past of mind measurement. I skilled temporary technological immanence adopted by a full-blown panic assault. That is that story. (InteraXon despatched me a free machine for overview, however has had no affect within the writing of this text.)

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“The mind communicates electrochemically. Now we have all these little electrical indicators shuffling forwards and backwards, sending electrical and chemical indicators to at least one one other. And the sum complete of {that electrical} exercise can truly be learn on the floor of your head. That’s your mind wave,” stated Ariel Garten, the co-founder and “Chief Evangelism Officer” of InteraXon. Garten is many issues: an artist, an govt, a TED-talk visionary, and a scholar of the mind, with graduate coaching in psychotherapy, neuroscience, and neuro-linguistic programming. When Atéha Bailly and I interviewed Garten final July on Zoom, she moved fluidly between subjects starting from meditation to neuroscience to cyborgs. The segments of our interview transcribed listed here are frivolously edited for readability.

“Muse has 4 channels of EEG electrodes: two in your brow and two behind the ears. It tracks your mind exercise throughout meditation, and it’s capable of offer you real-time suggestions to know while you’re targeted and when your thoughts is wandering,” Garten stated. “The issue that almost all of us have once we sit all the way down to meditate is you sit there [and] there’s no little coach or a bit guru sitting inside your mind telling you while you’re ‘doing it.’ With Muse, we’re capable of do exactly that. Observe while you’re in targeted consideration. And when your thoughts is wandering, then we will translate that mind exercise to guiding sounds. So that you’re actually capable of hear the sound of your thoughts to listen to while you’re targeted [or] wandering, and to turn into cued to return again to your meditative focus. We’re capable of observe brainwave exercise and know when you find yourself within the mind waves related to targeted consideration.”

(Picture supply: foreverfitscience.com)

Electroencephalography dates way back to the late 1800s. Put very merely, the premise is that this: now we have sensors that measure electrical exercise, and we all know brains work with electrical indicators, so let’s see what we will be taught by measuring the indicators coming off of individuals’s heads. EEG sensors measure voltage fluctuations on the scalp and translate them into waveforms, resembling the squiggly strains you may see on a lie detector take a look at. EEG continues to be used at this time in scientific analysis and medical medication, together with diagnostic assessments for epilepsy. It has even been used to review faith, maybe most famously in a partnership between the Dalai Lama and MIT.

But EEG additionally has critical limitations and has been eclipsed by different neuroimaging applied sciences like PET and fMRI. EEG sensors can solely measure gross electrical exercise from the floor of the cranium, so even the perfect EEG sensors can not measure the deep inside of the mind like an fMRI can. Among the many scientists I do know and inside the scientific historical past I’ve studied, EEG has one thing of a fringe standing as a result of it might solely make broad measurements and requires a lot speculative interpretation. Nonetheless, scientists have discovered correlations between electrical frequencies and psychological exercise. Excessive-frequency gamma waves are related to being alert, whereas low-frequency delta waves are present in people who find themselves in deep sleep.

Garten acknowledges these limitations. “Now with brainwaves,” she stated, “you’ll be able to’t see any particulars. You may’t see anyone’s ideas. You may’t see… what’s happening inside, however you’ll be able to see gross modifications in state.”

“We’re capable of generate an algorithm that might know while you’re in targeted consideration and when your thoughts is wandering. And we did this by first lots of of meditators, then hundreds of meditators, now thousands and thousands of hours of meditation,” Garten stated. “We needed to create an audio expertise that was going to really feel very pure by way of indicating to you while you’re targeted and when your thoughts is properly,” she continued, and “we got here up with the metaphor that your thoughts is just like the climate.”

“We created an audio panorama the place you’ll be able to hear your mind as storming while you’ve obtained numerous ideas and you may hear it as peaceable and calm when your thoughts is calm,” Garten defined, “and it grew to become this very intuitive option to perceive what your thoughts was doing. And it doesn’t sound such as you’re listening to a soundscape. It truly feels such as you’re listening to your individual phrases.”

By turning psychological states into sounds, Muse presents to reply the query that each starting meditator asks themselves in some unspecified time in the future: “Am I even doing this proper?” What Muse guarantees, I believed whereas listening to Garten, is to deliver scientific measurement into the once-private place of your internal thoughts. An anatomy of the soul.

Calibration

“It’s Monday, June 14th, that is Andrew Aghapour, and I’m about to arrange this Muse headset for the primary time,” I stated into my voice recorder, one eye on the sound ranges. “The white field appears very very like an Apple product,” I added.

The machine inside was surprisingly gentle. The Muse S consists of a gentle headband and a small puck containing the brains of the machine, which magnetically attaches to the entrance. After placing it on I felt like I used to be sporting a fancy headlamp.

I opened the Muse app and initiated my first meditation, selecting the default “Rainforest” soundscape over different choices like “Seashore,” “Campfire,” and “Ambient Music.” Quickly Muse spoke to me by my cellphone audio system. “Muse will information you to a deeper understanding of your self and your meditation apply by highly effective real-time suggestions,” it stated, earlier than instructing me on find out how to match the machine in order that the sensors remained comfortable towards my cranium.

Over the approaching weeks I might turn into used to those fittings. Muse has to dial itself in originally of every session. “For this calibration, discover a snug place and shut your eyes,” Muse would say, “Take a deep breath.” After a pause, uplifting synthesizer tones would then kick in and begin constructing. After which, louder, “Muse is now listening to your mind indicators. Calm down, and let your thoughts move naturally.” Just like the THX sound impact at film theaters, it straps you in.

Meditating with Muse’s “EEG-powered” rainforest soundscape begins with the sound of sunshine rain, and a picture in your cellphone of a inexperienced leaf getting dripped with water. Beneath that, a head-shaped icon signifies the standing of the sensors. As with different guided meditation apps, every session opens with an teacher giving a couple of ideas and instructions for the day’s session. That voice recedes, after which there you might be, in a forest the place the rain is definitely your consciousness.

(Picture supply: Kevin Whipple)

The very first thing you discover is how the sounds cease and begin. You’ll hear heavy rain, after which rapidly the air is silent save for a couple of drips and a distant hen. “What did I do proper?” you ask your self, microscopically turning your head, after which the storm is again once more and it’s time to trial-and-error your means again to serenity. With apply I discovered that one of the best ways to attain quiet was to take a seat completely nonetheless, breathe usually, and focus on not shifting. Speedy eye actions at all times introduced thunder, as did shifting round. Making my thoughts race with detrimental ideas didn’t appear to alter something, however hyperventilating did. It was enjoyable. (When requested about which brainwave patterns corresponded to which sounds, an InteraXon consultant stated that that is carried out utilizing the corporate’s proprietary algorithms.)

I meditated with Muse every day. I screen-recorded every session and taped audio diaries afterwards. Atéha and I fell right into a rhythm buying and selling audio forwards and backwards, decoding Muse on the fly as we carried out analysis into the historical past of EEG and different applied sciences which have promised to find faith within the mind. Along with being a scholar at Harvard Divinity College, Atéha can be a gifted musician, so we had been quickly speculating on find out how to isolate Muse’s sounds and switch them into one thing new. Wanting again on our conversations, they remind me of the contagious pleasure that Ariel Garten would use to explain her personal discovery of brain-computer interface techniques whereas working with Steve Mann, a pc engineer on the College of Toronto. Considered one of InteraXon’s early initiatives was a “thought-controlled” gentle present on the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

There’s something electrical about making a loop between your self and the world. Most days, it appears like there’s an “inside” to me that stands aside from the “outdoors” world. The 2 may work together, however they’re separate. At the moment’s philosophers and theorists will inform you that we’re, after all, rather more porous than that. We’re imbricated with the world, our our bodies so shot by with historical past and materiality that it might be mindless to posit some transcendent human topic. To which I might say, “Sure, nevertheless it doesn’t really feel like that each day, you understand?” I’ve had experiences on medication, love, and improv the place my self dissolved into the world and I might seemingly channel the “outdoors” by myself with out the filter of my very own ego, however this mode of being isn’t one thing I’ve been capable of induce immediately for Muse’s retail worth of $259.99.

However to meditate with Muse is to come across your inner-self as a factor out on this planet. On day three I opted for the “ambient music” soundscape and located an excellent groove. I felt one thing that was fairly in contrast to something I had skilled earlier than. It was like my internal soul had turn into my soundtrack. The within of my thoughts was outdoors after which in once more. I used to be a closed loop. My considering self was silent, and I felt a sure tingle that I’ve come to name duende—that fleeting expertise that one can have, whereas making artwork, the place rationality breaks down and your intestine wrenches with that thrilling reality that every one issues are doable, together with your individual annihilation. There’s immanence to be present in these soundscapes, this I can inform you.

Disaster

Day 4 was when issues began to get bizarre. In my audio diary I spent lots of time greedy at how meditating with Muse contrasted with the opposite meditation practices I’ve tried. In mindfulness meditation, for instance, I had been taught to concentrate on the sensations of my breath, return to focus when my thoughts inevitably obtained distracted, and pay attention to the place my thoughts went throughout these wanderings. It’d come as no shock that cognitive psychologists have discovered that this type of meditation can enhance metacognition.

“Mindfulness is self-analytical,” I stated, “however this… is simply vibes.” With Muse I discovered myself listening to music after which making an attempt to alter that music, advert infinitem, in a suggestions loop that labored greatest once I turned off the very a part of me that meditation helps domesticate. “I have to recover from some hang-ups I’ve about focus,” I stated earlier than ending the session early.

My different concern was that I used to be a rube. “I need it to be actual,” I stated the following day, “and but there’s part of me that appears like a idiot saving my progress and being informed that I can ‘Give $30 and Get $30’ if I ship an invitation to a good friend.” It appeared like Muse would work greatest if I might cease resisting and waft, however what sort of move had been we speaking about right here?

It was time to get some context. Atéha and I wanted one thing to check Muse to, and we discovered it in one other common science that measured the floor of the cranium: phrenology, the nineteenth-century pseudoscience that took America by storm. Phrenologists infamously believed that an individual’s character and aptitude could possibly be measured on the bumps on their cranium, which they believed corresponded to areas for issues like humor, selfishness, reasoning, and adaptiveness.

Phrenology was a cultural phenomenon among the many American upper-middle class and an vital starting of the fashionable self-help motion. Everybody from Walt Whitman to Brigham Younger to P.T. Barnum sat for readings, their heads measured with calipers whereas a phrenologist known as out values for his or her varied traits and aptitudes. After the studying, the affected person could be given a chart of their scores with directions for find out how to improve the scale of any psychological organs that fell brief. (Faith, one common phrenological textual content argued, could possibly be cultivated by “admiring the divine in nature.”)

However as we now know, these floor measurements had nothing to do with the brains beneath. Phrenologists had been infamously fallacious. And whereas its bourgeois sufferers sat in armchairs, phrenology was concurrently rising right into a brutal science of empire. Atéha and I learn James Poskett’s Supplies of the Thoughts and noticed how colonial powers throughout the globe used phrenology to objectify, racialize, and management displaced and enslaved peoples. Scientists in the USA used phrenology to justify slavery and the conquest of Native American lands, claiming that Africans had giant “veneration” areas that made them mentally suited to servitude. As historian Kyla Schuller argues in The Biopolitics of Feeling, “impressibility” grew to become a brand new worth: white Europeans thought-about themselves superior as a result of their brains, they believed, had been extra plastic.

Muse, too, measures the thoughts’s floor and guarantees self-improvement. However perhaps phrenology wasn’t the perfect instance. The science behind Muse is extra persuasive, its ethics extra fine-tuned. I made a decision to maintain going.

On the fifth day I needed to listen to birds once more, so I went again to Muse’s default “Rainforest” soundscape. Whereas Muse calibrated, I listened to a voice message from Atéha. “I see Muse as this factor that takes meditation, a apply we affiliate as faith, and posits that you simply’ll be a greater individual, extra targeted, extra in management, extra in contact with your individual mind states. And so they use science to bolster their claims, with a web site citing how Gamma frequencies might be noticed in excessive quantities in Buddhist monks,” he stated within the grainy recording, “however I feel that in doing that, your cellphone turns into a tool that provides you suggestions in your religiosity, and… it’s not telling you to be rebellious, it’s telling you to be chill the place you might be, an excellent topic within the system. So, our cellphone turns into a means of implementing ‘good’ faith.”

“Muse is now listening to your mind waves,” the machine stated.

Issues had been stormy from the start. Because the meditation session started, I began worrying about my very own curiosity in Muse and phrenology. Right here I used to be sitting within the suburbs, fidgeting with my mind waves, daydreaming of how I’d impress my associates and enhance myself. Was I that completely different from a phrenology affected person, wishing for somebody to point out me my soul and inform me it’s good? At what value? And why was I so bent on recording my thoughts and “getting good tape?” I heard thunder and downpour. I attempted to refocus and make my thoughts extra receptive, however what I heard was speeding waves. I used to be getting pulled beneath. I ripped Muse off my head and threw it down on the sofa.

Neuromatic

We wanted an professional on this subject, so Atéha and I turned to John Fashionable, writer of the brand new ebook Neuromatic: Or, A Particular History of Religion and the Brain. Fashionable is a professor of Spiritual Research at Franklin & Marshall Faculty and a scholar of American non secular historical past. I knew him from the tutorial convention circuit, the place he has a larger-than-life status as a punk rock self-discipline builder: the tall man within the classic go well with who’s speaking secularism and vinyl data to a packed room at 10 a.m., and why does it odor like weed in right here? It is a Marriott.

Atéha and I ordered copies of Neuromatic and scheduled an interview with Fashionable a month out, then dove into the textual content. (Atéha would later write a overview of Neuromatic for Studying Faith, which might be discovered here.) What we discovered was a zig-zagging story of faith and the mind in American historical past. Neuromatic is form of gonzo family tree of the mind as we all know it– that’s, our concept of the mind, and our conception of it as an info processor that bridges the internal energies of the thoughts with the empirical outdoors world.

Fashionable argues that, for the reason that Enlightenment, the “explanatory attract of the mind” has made it a “website of interpretive wrestle because the politics of secular differentiation took maintain. As the search for the seat of the soul grew to become ever extra empirical, the very idea of soul was rearticulated in an effort to handle new, urgent questions in regards to the self and world.” Fashionable then traces the tangled historical past of American faith and science to point out how this “rearticulation of the soul” has performed out throughout a various community of concepts, rituals, ideas, arts, and applied sciences.

Studying Fashionable weave between eighteenth-century non secular revivals, cybernetics, cognitive theories of faith, “electrical love remedy,” the EEG biofeedback motion, Scientology, and extra, it struck me that over the past 2 hundred years, so many sciences and religions have targeted on the mind and tried to harness its unusual vitality. For twentieth-century pharmacologist and biofeedback pioneer Barbara Brown, for instance, mind waves mirrored a deeper physiology and believed frequencies could possibly be used to enhance your mind. Brown thought EEG biofeedback would hasten the event of a “new state of consciousness.” Fashionable additionally describes how, inside the area of Spiritual Research, the cognitive science of faith has gained recognition partly as a consequence of its promise to cross the brain-barrier between tradition and nature. There’s one thing electrical about that loop, I stored considering, between self and world.

When Atéha and I interviewed Fashionable about his ebook on Zoom, we informed him about Muse and our reservations about what occurs when faith is collapsed into information on our telephones. Fashionable averred, “Faith is being continually made up, on a regular basis, and people constructions have actual results in the actual world. These constructions kill folks, [they] heal folks, they offer folks solace and a way of find out how to perceive tragedy… Perhaps it’s romantic or humanistic, [but] there’s one thing being misplaced if it’s being actively extracted from us and commodified and somebody is creating wealth.”

On the identical time, although, Fashionable acknowledged the attraction of the machine. “I’ve no downside with, you understand, having a celebration on a Friday evening with a couple of drinks and the Muse and seeing what we will do with it, and reflecting and studying from each other.” There was a spark in Fashionable’s eyes, which got here out each time he retrieved objects from his assortment of mind wave charts and phrenology manuals. This man loops, I believed.

I informed Fashionable that Neuromatic had helped me make sense of my very own wrestle with Muse and the uncanny expertise of getting your mind changed into information. He lit up as he shared his personal expertise of getting his mind measured. “I went as much as Boston and was a take a look at topic on this [MRI] experiment the place they had been finding out faith and topics who’ve been recognized with left-onset Parkinson’s illness,” he stated. “I had by no means had an MRI earlier than. It was an extremely intense expertise as a result of it’s not solely the bodily depth—the self-discipline that you’re performing in there to maintain your self nonetheless and observe all the principles, and it’s not simply the waves of magnetism that I felt sweeping throughout my physique, and never solely my tattoo heating up just a bit bit…What was spooky about it was I felt 400 years of historical past being simply, like, mainlined into me in that second…How did I find yourself right here inside the most recent, best leading edge scientific instrument that’s extracting information from me?”

After the interview was over, I uploaded the audio recordsdata and sat on my workplace flooring. My coronary heart was beating quick. Residual nerves. I targeted for a second on my breath. It’s definitely alarming, I believed, that wearables had crossed into the area, usually related to faith, of formality self-work. Because the historical past of phrenology and different mind sciences had taught me, information is at all times imbricated in social energy, and so the metrics we use to review ourselves will at all times deliver ideologies and assumptions with them.

However the work of looping isn’t over. There was audio to edit, a voicemail to transcribe. I wasn’t certain but what I thought of Muse, however I knew that one of the best ways to seek out out was to make one thing and put it out into the world. To see myself as a personality. I used to be, for higher or worse, dwelling within the neuromatic.

As I labored on this story over the months that adopted, I stored coming again to at least one piece of tape. On the very finish of our interview with Ariel Garten, the InteraXon CEO, I requested if Muse would flip us into cyborgs or turn into its personal faith. Her reply was illuminating, so I’ll reproduce it right here.

Andrew Aghapour: Does Muse make us into cyborgs?

Ariel Garten: We’ve been augmenting ourselves with know-how for a really very long time. We put glasses on our eyes to sharpen the best way that the sunshine goes into them so we will see extra successfully… We’re continually enhancing ourselves with know-how, changing into a form of cyborg if it had been so on this sense, sure, we’re utilizing a digital mirror to trace your thoughts.

AA: However Muse fascinates me in a means that glasses don’t as a result of it’s… a fold within the universe, like a Mobius strip. [Glasses] deliver gentle that’s far-off nearer. Muse is taking one thing that’s behind me and altering it for me to re-experience. So I suppose that’s the place the cyborg query is available in. The way forward for Muse, to me, looks as if the way forward for a brand new sort of human. How does that strike you?

AG: Sure and no. I’m undecided that I agree, as a result of a mirror does the identical factor, reflecting again gentle. I play the violin. You understand, I take these strings [and make] sound that then hits my ear. I then have an emotional response, which then modifications the music that I create. We are sometimes in suggestions loops, in live performance with what we’re working with. This [Zoom] setup that we’ve obtained right here, it’s taking info [back and forth] and we’re capable of have this two-way discourse. So sure, there’s one thing inherently lovely about with the ability to have a transformative expertise. And on this case, the know-how provides to a chunk of that transformation. However I’m loath to place the burden into the know-how and much more concerned about placing the burden into the human who’s doing the transformation themselves.

AA: Is Muse a faith?

AG: If I take advantage of the definition of faith that was in my thoughts, which is a set of practices or beliefs which show you how to body your expertise of life, that can be carried out by a bunch of different folks in a shared expertise, would I outline Muse as a faith? No, as a result of Muse is simply the software.

AA: So that you’re not a prophet, I suppose you’re one thing else? A software maker?

AG: A shoemaker.

AA: Effectively if these are sneakers, they’re actually fairly one thing to traverse the world with.

 

Andrew Ali Aghapour is a storyteller and scholar of faith and science. He holds a Ph.D. in Spiritual Research from UNC-Chapel Hill and is consulting scholar of faith and science on the Nationwide Museum of American Historical past. He’s the co-author (with Peter Manseau) of Discovery and Revelation: Religion, Science, and Making Sense of Things. His one-person present Zara is about rising up Muslim within the American South. 

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 The writer wish to thank the Ministry of Concepts workforce who helped with the reporting of this piece. Zachary Davis and Liya Rechtman shepherded this story with perception and persistence. Rachel Carbonara and Michael Schulson had been essential dialog companions. Nick Andersen, Galen Beebe, Maria Devlin, and Shaina Shealy gave sage recommendation about find out how to get good tape and inform tales with it. Atéha Bailly co-produced the podcast episode on which this story is predicated and formed it at each step alongside the best way. I’ve tried to do justice right here to the work that we did collectively.

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