Can a meditation headband really make you more chilled?

Think you suck at meditating? A wearable “headband” called The Muse 2 promises to read your brain waves, breathing patterns and movement to keep you in the zen zone.

Introducing Muse 2

The Muse 2 – an upgrade of the original Muse – has gotten the attention of tech-savvy meditators all over the globe, even being used in “meditation championships” where meditators compete to see who can remain calmest for longest.

The device wraps around your forehead and tucks behind your ears, so that a thin strip of electrodes can measure sparks of brain activity that occur when you have a thought, and provide real-time feedback to the Muse app.

Through your headphones, you’ll hear a soundscape – you can choose from things like a forest, ocean or ambient music – and the volume adjusts depending on how calm you are. When your thoughts are quiet and your breathing is settled, you’ll hear soft background noise, like little waves lapping on the shore. If you start thinking or forget to focus on your breath, the volume will crank to something like crashing ocean waves to remind you you’re drifting off.

And when you’re doing a good job of keeping things mellow, you’ll hear birds chirping, which is the Muse users’ equivalent of Mario Kart star coins.

The end of the session sounds with a bell and you’re given a graph of your brainwaves and informed how many minutes your brain was calm, active or neutral, plus how many birds you “scored”.

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The Muse appeal

I’ve long loved meditating, but I very much rely on guided audio meditations or yoga teachers to help me “let go”. I need those soothing voices and breath suggestions to help me switch off and the idea of simply sitting in the lotus position with my own thoughts is laughable – I just get caught up in to-dos and goal setting and annoying self-reflection.

And while I certainly find it easier to stay focused on meditating following the voices of apps like Glo or Smiling Mind, I often fall asleep as soon as things get going. Blame it on my 5am toddler’s alarm, the working mum juggle or the fact I’ve always had a penchant for slumber – but I can admit I often plug the headphones in for what should really be termed a “guided powernap” as opposed to “turning the mind and attention inward and focusing on a single thought, image, object or feeling” that the Meditation Association of Australia defines as the broad objective of the practice.

So news of a device that could almost read my thoughts and keep me on the meditation straight and narrow was too much to resist – I had to try it out for myself.

So, does it work?

It’s a strange experience to have an external force so in tune with your mind activity. When I heard birds chirp, I’d fist pump myself and when the volume amplified, it was the equivalent of a mental face palm as I realised I’d drifted off into la-la land.

I found my “performance” was quite reflective of where my head was at on a particular day. When I felt more strung out or scattered, I ended up with less calm minutes – somewhere around 40-50 percent calm time. When I was well rested and feeling relatively serene, I could get as high as 75 percent calm time – which my ego loved.

Just like any good meditation, I always felt better after doing it, with more mental clarity and softer breathing, and research shows that four weeks of using Muse leads to reduced stress and improved brain plasticity, so it’s possible I’m actually smarter now too.

I still nodded off during a lot of my sessions, but the soundscape was super handy for yanking me out of lucid dreams and back to breathing. Those sessions tended to report less calm time, which made sense given my brain was usually zigzagging in a strange dreamy state.

I thought I’d be hard on myself when I could only muster one out of 10 minutes of calm time, but as time went on, it became quite predictable as I became more skilled at taking a bird’s eye view of my brain behaviour. I even started to notice I was more in tune with my mental clarity and energy levels in day-to-day life too.

If you need it, get it

We’re always hearing about the downsides of our tech habits, but Muse 2 flies in the face of that, actually using technology to slow us down. It’s a boon for anyone who says they “can’t” meditate or likes to make a game out of, well, anything.

But with our poor US dollar conversions right now, you’re looking at around $440 (US$299) to commit to the cause. That’s cheaper than therapy or a holiday, but a lot more than the free apps or sitting quietly on a cushion.

So if you’re able to meditate on your own, then by all means, continue as you were. But if you’ve traditionally struggled to do it, then it makes sense to get a little help from a technological friend.

Muse 2 is available to purchase online for US$249 plus US$25 for international shipping. It comes with a 30-day money back guarantee.