Can you rewire your brain in two weeks? The answer appears to be — at least partially — yes.
The following is a guest post by Shane Snow, frequent contributor to Wired and Fast Company and author of the new book SMARTCUTS: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success. Last year, he wrote about his two-week Soylent experiment, which went viral and racked up 500+ comments. He knows how to stir up controversy.
In this post, Shane tests the “brain-sensing headband” called Muse.
It’s received a lot of PR love, but does it stand up to the hype? Can it make you a calmer, more effective person in two weeks? This post tackles these questions and much more.
As many of your know, I’m a long-time experimenter with “smart drugs,” which I think are both more valuable and more dangerous that most people realize. This includes homemade brain stim (tDCS) devices (I wouldn’t recommend without supervision) and other cutting-edge tools. If you’d like to read more on these topics, please let me know in the comments.
In the meantime, I hope you enjoy Shane’s experimentation!
Enter Shane Snow
The electrodes needed to be adjusted to fit my sweaty head, which was apparently the largest size the product could accommodate.
I was sitting on a porch in palpable D.C. humidity, on a midsummer’s morning at Bolling Air Force Base, trying to get a quartet of EEG sensors to connect my brain to my Samsung Galaxy. The purple box on my screen kept blinking in and out of sync.
Inside the house, my friend’s two-year-old was jumping violently on the sofa—the same sofa that the shedding 15-pound cat named Endai and I had shared for the past week. The house was in shambles; movers were busily trucking everything away to my friend’s soon-to-be new home in New Mexico. Hence the porch.
I had been sleeping on said couch due to the abrupt ending of an 8-year relationship, which had left me stunned and homeless for the preceding three weeks. As luck would have it, the anti-anxiety pills my shrink had prescribed for me to take “as needed” were back in New York in my friend Simon’s living room. Crap. My calendar had just alerted me that I’d missed the Skype call start time for my company board meeting, right before the movers unplugged the Internet. Meanwhile, a platoon of military helicopters had decided to play what appeared to be a game of “who can hover the longest over the neighborhood”. Chuk, chuk, chuk, chuk, chuk. CHUCK. CHUCK.
My stress levels were high.
Seemed like as good a time as any to try out my new gadget: a brainwave-sensing headband called the Muse, and its companion app, Calm.
I placed the band’s centimeter-wide contact strip of electrodes against my forehead and rested the plastic against the top of my ears, fiddling with the fit until my phone finally registered a solid connection for each of the sensors, two on my temples, two behind my ears. I donned my white Audio-Technica DJ headphones and fired up the app, which in a soothing voice instructed me to sit up straight, and breeeeeeeathe.
Calm is a simple meditation exercise: Count your breaths. Don’t try to force them. Your body knows how to breathe. Simply pay attention, the female voice in my headphones told me. After Muse calibrated to my brain’s “active” state—by making me brainstorm items in a series of topics—I was given five minutes of nature sounds to breathe to. When calm and focused, I enjoyed the sound of lapping waves and birds tweeting; when my mind wandered, sturdy winds picked up and the birds flew away.
At the end of five minutes, the app confirmed: I am not very calm.
Thus began my two week experiment in brain therapy. I’d been planning on acquiring a Muse after having caught wind of its development nearly two years before, but who knew it would finally be released during the most anxious time of my adult life? Two weeks was plenty of time, Muse inventor Ariel Garten told me, for the Muse focus training exercises “to reduce perception of pain, improve memory, improve affect, reduce anxiety, and also improve emotional intelligence.”
Seemed a little good to be true, but I was willing to test it.
Electroencephalography (EEG—the recording of electrical activity emitted from the brain) has come a long way in the last 100 years, since doctors drilled holes in monkeys heads to attach sensors, and eventually glued contacts with cathode ray tubes to intact human skulls to map brain activity. They discovered that the brain emits oscillating signals of variable frequency, and the frequency of the oscillations indicates what’s happening—at a high level—in one’s mind. These “waves” are generally delineated into categories based on frequency ranges:
- Delta waves: indicate deep sleep. (1-3 Hz)
- Theta waves: indicate deep relaxation or meditation. (4-8 Hz)
- Alpha waves: indicate a relaxed brain state, what Garten calls “an open state of mind.” (9-13 Hz)
- Beta waves: indicate alert consciousness and fire up when you’re actively thinking. (14-30 Hz)
- Gamma waves: indicate high alertness and are often associated with learning. (30-100 Hz)
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The original purpose of EEG was the study of epilepsy. Over the decades, however, as computers improved, neuroscientists’ increasing capability to process the enormous amount of data the brain throws off allowed them to experiment with EEG for other uses, such as attention therapy.
In his 2007 book, The Brain That Changes Itself, neuroscientist Norman Doidge made mainstream the then recent (and surprising) finding that “the brain can change its own structure and function through thought and activity.” Our intelligence and tendencies are not locked in once we’re no longer children, as popular belief once held. Once our brain was wired, it could still be rewired. Doidge called it, “the most important alteration in our view of the brain since we first sketched out its basic anatomy and the workings of its basic component, the neuron.”
This adaptability factor of the brain is called “neuroplasticity.” You may have seen dubious advertisements for “brain-enhancing games” and other gimmicks that drop the term neuroplasticity in impressive-sounding (but often meaningless) marketing speak. Despite this misuse, the plasticity of our neurons is, in fact, fact. Our brains use it to wire themselves naturally, but in the past several years scientists have developed a simple procedure to “hack” them.
Neurofeedback training, or NFT as the scientists call it, is a conditioning method wherein a patient is hooked up to an EEG and shown how active her brain is, thus allowing her to concentrate on exercises that exploit neuroplasticity to build mental muscles that allow her to consciously affect her resting brain activity. Clinical studies have shown that NFT helps the majority of patients to improve their cognitive control and have also helped ADHD sufferers significantly improve their ability to focus. NFT has even been shown to have a positive effect on depression.
The two prerequisites to being able to pull off NFT are EEG sensors and a computer processor that can turn an EEG scan into real-time feedback. The electricity coming off the brain is orders of magnitude weaker than a standard AA battery, which means sensors must be powerful, delicate, and well-attached to pick anything up. Doctors have found that the skull reduces the signal significantly and thus would prefer if we didn’t have skulls (for examination purposes, that is), but have mostly settled on using wet sensors—electrodes affixed to the scalp or forehead using conductive gel.
The breakthrough that enabled a more practical, portable EEG device like the Muse claims to be, was the advent of dry sensors, or metal contacts that can use the skin’s own moisture or sweat to attain the necessary conductivity.
“Brain waves are very, very, very quiet. They’ve had to make their way all the way through your thick, thick skull,” Garten says. But sensor technology is improving at a rate that indicates we’re two to three years away from non-contact sensors, she predicts.
And in 2014, processing power is no longer a problem. “Ten years ago we were using fiber optic cable to make sure that you got this extraordinary data into what was like an egg carton and an ancient Commodore computer so that they could do all the processing,” Garten says. “Now, we can just use a phone and Bluetooth.”
The 2013 Muse prototype
When I’d first laid hands on the Muse a year and a half before, it was a chunky slab of plastic and metal. Garten and I met up at a design gallery in Manhattan for a demo of the prototype headband she’d been working on for the better part of the last decade. A Canadian fashion designer turned neuroscientist, she spoke earnestly about the potential applications for measuring one’s brainstate to ameliorate stress and perhaps one day cure ADHD and anxiety.
Garten’s prototype Muse measured the activity of these waves and output them to an iPad like a seismograph. After I donned the plastic headband, I watched in real time as slowing my breathing or concentrating on something or simply talking affected the different wave forms.
“The long term vision is this tool is going to be a regular part of our daily lives,” Garten told me. “You know, like pedometers that help people manage and understand their physical exercise. Brain health is going to be something that is on everybody’s mind. Up until now, there has been no way to, basically, like put a stethoscope up to your brain and say, ‘How is it doing?’”
Ten years ago, a NFT system with Muse-like capabilities (often found in a chiropractor’s office) would cost 5 figures and a closet-worth of space. Now the processing power lives on a standard smartphone, and Muse sensors cost $299.
Eventually, Garten predicted, doctors would actively use it to treat the mentally ill. Programmers would build brainwave-control apps for gaming and smart homes and surfing the Internet on top of Muse’s technology.
But for now it just gives you tweety birds.
My porch session resulted in precisely zero of them:
This session, for which I got a score of “31% calm,” would be the first of many mental workouts in my DYI NFT experiment. Would regular usage of the Muse headband actually change my brain and help fix my anxious life? Or would it turn out to be another wearable that’s more hype than help?
The 2014 Muse headband
The hypothesis (aka sales pitch) was that by using Muse, I’d improve my ability to focus and maintain my cool during my stressful day-to-day.
So for fifteen days, I performed a five-minute Muse Calm session each morning within an hour of waking up and shaking off sleep. I’d sit in a similar setting (straight-back chair in a room alone), in similar clothing (comfortable, shorts and t-shirt, no shoes), with no distractions (accomplished via Bose noise-canceling earbuds) every time.
Additionally, I performed a series of sessions in various random non-comfortable settings, to test whether different mental exercises produced different results, or whether I could remain calm while being assaulted by various outside forces—which is the real goal of NFT, rather than simply getting better at a “game” in quiet isolation.
Though the app would tell me if my brain was getting better at calming itself during the exercise, the less easy-to-quantify result would be to see whether my level of general anxiety would decrease as I got better at the Calm app. (I.e. am I forming these alleged neural pathways?) Garten and Calm each told me that once I completed enough sessions (5,000 points’ worth), the app would unlock insights about how my brain was doing, which could shed some light on my meta-state. But I also tracked my overall emotional and mental state by keeping regular journal entries throughout the two weeks.
For a control—and as a basic BS test—I performed a session while reading a book instead of doing the breathing exercise. I read three pages of Murakami’s new one, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, and my brain was all sorts of active. Mr. Murakami, your work is stimulating. Science hath proven it:
Most of my morning sessions took place between 8 and 11 a.m. I keep a somewhat irregular sleep schedule (a source of anxiety, or symptom?), but aim for 7 hours a night. The important part for this experiment was to make sure that I did my Muse session within an hour of waking, but after I had stopped being groggy. In other words: before my morning exercise, after my morning pee.
I kept the morning schedule up with a few exceptions: on August 18, the Muse Calm app caused the headband to think my brainwaves had completely flatlined. I contacted the Muse team, and they confirmed that this was indeed a bug that they were working on fixing that day. On August 20, 22, 24, and 26 I skipped my morning session due to extenuating circumstances. (The 24th, for example, was my birthday, and I stayed out until 8 a.m.. My first session that day was at 4 p.m. and resulted in a hangover-level 31%.) But throughout my 15-day experiment, I never went a day without doing one or more sessions, and I never went two days without doing a standardized morning session.
In all, I completed 24 sessions. Here’s how my morning sessions went over the course of the two weeks:
You’ll notice that I did pretty poorly for the first several sessions, then experienced a jump in improvement on August 17. What this chart doesn’t show is that though it was that August 17 was actually the seventh session I’d done in total. So I was getting better, but I’m not entirely sure why such a dramatic jump. You’ll also notice a slight dip on the 25th and 27th. On these days, I was having a couple of particularly anxious mornings (due to personal issues); however, on these days I still maintained double the calm as my first few sessions—which were less emotionally fraught than these days.
My final morning session of the experiment, on August 28, was a serene 89%—my best yet, and just one spike of brain activity away from monk-like zen:
More importantly, I attracted a fucking flock of tweety birds:
Here’s how I performed on my random sessions in less-controlled environments:
Clearly, it was harder for me to focus and remain calm when I was tired or emotionally compromised.
Trains made it easier to focus (likely due to the lack of noise and abundance of leg room). Airplanes tend to give me claustrophobia, but it’s also likely that the vibrations of the plane itself caused my muscles to move (generating louder electrical signals than your brain emits) and made my results so poor during the flight. There certainly was a lot of shaking going on during my flight.
Interestingly, listening to calming music (I tend to put Blackmill’s “Miracle” album on repeat when I want to relax or single-task) outperformed no sound (simply trying to calm myself without an aid). On August 27, my regular session with the app’s wind and waves, resulted in 12% less calm than my music experiment immediately after.
As far as the meta, “how am I doing” portion of the experiment went, I eagerly awaited when I could unlock the “Insights About You” page of the app, after racking up enough “calm points”. Disappointingly, though Garten and Muse Calm both promised me these “additional features and special insights into my brain”, once I unlocked the screen, I got simply a blank, broken page:
When asked, the Muse publicist confirmed that the feature “actually hasn’t been developed yet” and relayed the (in my opinion) unlikely explanation that “there was a miscommunication between the product and dev teams.”
My journal entries indicated a general decrease in agitation and worry by the end of the experiment. My ability to focus on tasks (primarily writing) seemed to improve. I have a tendency to get distracted when I’m writing, and in the same way that the waves-and-wind exercise in the app teaches you to power through distractions and focus on your breath, I felt that I already was improving my ability to notice a distraction but keep it in the background instead of indulging it.
Furthermore, as I walked down busy streets or lay in bed—times when I normally would ruminate—I found myself subconsciously slowing breaths and counting them as a means of shoving out bad thoughts and calming down.
“Many smart people who use their brains a lot are ‘high beta,’” explained my therapist (whose name I’ll omit to maintain a shred of personal privacy) when I asked her about this. An award-winning Manhattan psychologist and author, she has used NFT herself. A few years ago, she used a professional-grade version of Muse to teach her own active brain to be silent. “I couldn’t go to sleep without the TV on,” she said. “The minute it was quiet, my brain would explode with activity.”
With measurement and some mental situps, she calmed her own rumination—as apparently thousands of people have done at clinics that use EEG therapy. That “neuroplasticity” thing that people throw around, it turns out, is real. And it works as fast as one can form a bad habit.
“The brain can be retrained,” she said. “People think it can’t, but it can.”
One of the main limitations of the Muse Calm app—or at least questions that I had from the beginning—was the validity of the wind-and-waves feedback sound system itself, as well as the “count your breaths” mediation exercise. My assistant, Erin, who’s a yoga instructor and meditation expert by night, was skeptical that the Muse Calm exercise was the most effective method the app could have chosen. Why would you have the distracting sounds get worse when you were most compromised? she said. Doesn’t that create a self-defeating cycle?
Garten responded: “We did a bunch of experimentation on positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement and we ultimately built an application with a mix of both. The negative reinforcements of the wind can definitely be distracting, but what you learn over time is also this lesson in not being judgmental when things don’t work.”
A 2010 study by scientists from the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown found positive links between “mindfulness training”—the popular meditation practice of calmly noticing, but not changing what’s happening to you—has a positive effect on working memory. The Muse Calm’s “notice and count your breaths” exercise is a form of mindfulness training, and appears to hold up under scientific scrutiny, but the wind-and-waves feedback loop (NFT) throws a bit of a wrench into true “mindfulness”, since the act of being mindful ends up affecting your environment, whereas the point of mindfulness meditation is to notice but not affect.
Could a “pure” mindfulness exercise without the instant and self-reinforcing feedback outperform Calm’s NFT/mindfulness hybrid? Beats me, but it’s a question I’d want to test in future experiments.
Other limitations or potential variables that could affect the science behind my two-week experiment include the following:
- Factors such as the exact time I awoke and what kind of bed I slept in changed slightly from day to day, as I was traveling and couch-hopping. While the course of my experiment showed an upward trend in calm, I wasn’t able to duplicate the time and setting of each of my morning sessions precisely, which could affect the results to some degree.
- Since I was dealing with the fresh personal trauma, perhaps I was naturally recovering psychologically during the two weeks of my experiment (i.e. regression to the mean). My therapist insists that the relationship wound was too fresh and two weeks is not enough time to work through anything, but it still could be a factor.
- This experiment was only two weeks, which I was told would be a sufficient minimum for results. More time could certainly help verify the trends I observed in my short experiment. (And I plan to keep using Muse over the next few months to track just that.)
- And of course, my observations about how I was feeling were, by nature, subjective. (However, if my psychological improvement is all in my head, that’s okay by me—it was in my head to begin with! And actually, I’ve interviewed one scientist who’s studying how placebos actually form neural pathways that can physically cure psychological issues. Very interesting stuff happening in this field.)
The electrodes had no problem beaming the signal from my sweaty head to my Android this time.
I was sitting on a set of red bleachers in disgusting New York humidity in the middle of Times Square, Manhattan. The familiar female voice in my headphones instructed me to close my eyes, as she had two dozen times before.
Around me, a trillion stressed-out tourists were busily taking selfies and worrying about pick pockets. A troupe of Chinese activists had just accosted me with pamphlets and signs concerning some “Jesuit Father discrimination” something-or-other, meanwhile a quartet of feather-headressed ladies performed a synchronized dance on the steps below me. A bumblefoot pigeon had taken up residence on my step and didn’t seem to want to leave me alone. My entire body was sweating.
I’d just walked through my old neighborhood, a surprisingly painful reminiscence. Unexpectedly, one of my ex’s favorite songs had begun playing on shuffle as I made my way through the crowd, further dampening my mood. In the back of my head were the several overdue stories for editors of various publications in line with my book launch, and the approximately 200 priority emails stacked up in my inbox. I was lugging my entire life in an overstuffed backpack and had just spilled protein drink all over my shorts—which I just now realized were my only available leggings, because I’d left the remaining two pairs of jeans I owned back in my friend Simon’s freezer (here’s why). I was pensive and hot and frustrated and dripping.
Once again, I donned my brainwave headband, which once again told me to breeaaathe.
About halfway through my five-minute session—the twenty-fifth I’d undertaken since meeting Muse—some nearby tourists began singing “Happy Birthday” so loudly that I could hear them through my noise-canceling headphones. A fire engine blared its siren in place for a full minute, stuck one block away in Times Square traffic. My butt burned on the red steps, in the August heat. My posture was killing me.
At the end of five minutes, Muse confirmed: I was pretty damn calm.
The two spikes in active brain activity in this chart were the fire truck and the birthday party, each of which I recovered from almost instantly. Aside from that, my brain state was either neutral or calm the entire time:
Plus I attracted 15 tweety birds:
Despite the chaos in my life, there was no doubt that this little device had made me a calmer person in just two weeks. I could play through the mental and physical pain with twice the composure as just fifteen days before.
Muse has a way to go before the guy with the electric headband on in Times Square doesn’t just look like an idiot. And the Calm app could definitely use work. (Different meditation exercises, please?) However, the science behind what the Muse team is doing is real, the technology promising, and a bevy of independent programmers are already building fascinating applications on top of Muse.
With the development of cheap and portable EEG monitors like Muse, are we a few lines of code away from controlling light switches and video games with our brains? It’ll take a while.
But I, at least, am a step closer to mind over matter.
Question of the day: What do you think are the next frontiers of self-experimentation and self-tracking? What would you like me to test for you? Please let me know in the comments by clicking here.