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)
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.”
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