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Does Muse’s brain-sensing headband really calm you?

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By Megan Anderle, Editor and Contributing Writer

I was intrigued by Muse, a brain-sensing headband that promises to quell daily anxieties and encourage mindfulness. Finally a wearable that wasn’t superfluous that could actually improve our quality of life, I thought.

Retailing at $299 a pop, Muse isn’t the only brain-training device on the market. Emotiv makes a similar headgear called Epoc+, and Luminosity offers games to sharpen your attention span. But Muse lacks the cumbersome sensors of Epoc+ in favor of a minimalist, sleek design with just one black band that fits snugly across your forehead and tucks behind your ears. So I figured I’d give it a try for a few weeks.

The device, which works with a corresponding mobile app, raised more than $287,000 on Indiegogo in 2012 and has since received a lot of attention from the press. Many say they’ve become calmer and more focused since they started using the gadget. But after using Muse for a few weeks, I don’t see a significant improvement in my mental health.

The hardware and the app 

The simplicity of Muse’s design is definitely a plus. The rubber-framed device incorporates a metal strip of clinical-grade electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors for detecting electrical activity in the brain. Otherwise, the device consists of an on/off button and a micro USB slot for charging. The battery life is excellent — Muse can go days without a charge if you use it once a day as I did and turn it off when you’re done. The app, on the other hand, depleted the battery percentage on my Samsung Galaxy S5 very quickly, even if I was just doing a three-minute session.

The sensors in the device communicate with your smartphone’s app. At the beginning of each session, the device has to sync with the app, meaning Muse has to fit just the right way before you begin your session. Getting the headset to sync is a delicate process. Sometimes it would take me minutes to get just the right fit. Other times it would connect right away. When my brother and sister tried it, they too found Muse’s connection to be temperamental.

Once it syncs, Muse takes a snapshot of your brain’s activity to serve as a baseline for when your mind is active and when it’s neutral or calm. Over the course of a minute, Muse asks you to think about mundane things such as “spices” and “bodies of water.” You must calibrate Muse each time you begin a session, which can be annoying. If there’s a signal drop, which happened on occasion, you start the minute all over again.

What Muse sessions are like

After the minute-long calibration, you begin the session, which can last for three, five, seven or 12 minutes. You start with a sunny beach on a cloudless day, and when your mind is active, winds pick up and clouds come out. Your goal is to keep the winds at bay by relaxing your mind and achieving a meditative state.

At the end of the session, Muse gives you a breakdown of the number of seconds you spent in active, neutral or calm states along with a chart. The gamified platform rewards you with bonus birds when you’ve had a mostly restful session, which is a draw for some users, but the prospect of getting a bonus bird didn’t motivate me to use the device.

You’re supposed to use Muse in a quiet space, and if there’s a sudden sound or if you exhale heavily or furrow your brow, it will cause the winds to blow, which isn’t necessarily indicative of anxious thoughts. You need to sit completely still; otherwise it will skew the data or Muse will disconnect from the app. I never realized how fidgety I was until I started using Muse.

I suspect that as Muse’s sensors improve and our smartphones become more compatible with wearables, this will change.

The verdict

I did train myself to be calmer during my Muse sessions and earned some bonus birds, but what did it do for me outside of these sessions? Not much. I used Muse at night before bed, and I didn’t experience greater focus or less stress the following day. But then again I don’t meditate when I’m stressed — rather, I’m into kickboxing and running to relieve stress — so I wonder if a seasoned yogi would reap the benefits more than someone like me.

I wouldn’t recommend dropping $299 on Muse until the device has been made less temperamental, but I also wouldn’t write it off completely. This is a novel technology — essentially a Fitbit for your brain that has a lot of potential. Muse hasn’t been out for long, so I’d just give it some time to work out its hardware glitches, especially if meditating is your thing. The company says it is updating the app in early 2015 and adding exercises to improve your focus, and I think varied exercises is a good start to creating a better user experience. Until then, I’ll stick to sprints.

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