Here’s an inspiring story for the first week of the new year, when even the steeliest of resolutions confront the nagging drag of entrenched habits: The most sophisticated new device to promote mindfulness comes from the restless mind of a once-failed meditator.
“I was a psychotherapist and would teach my patients to meditate, but I, myself, was never able to crack the code. I always had a million ideas, had an entrepreneurial mind, and the thought of silencing it was quite uncomfortable to me,” says Ariel Garten, cofounder of Muse, the app-based device used by more than 100,000 people since its debut in 2014. “I was just never able to stick with it.”
This week, Garten’s company launched its most advanced version: the Muse S, which has a soft headband embedded with sophisticated electroencephalogram (EEG) and photoplethysmogram (PPG) sensors to monitor brain activity, heart rate and breathing. Users get real time feedback, in the form of nature sounds like falling rain, that prompt them when they become distracted. The app documents brain and heart rate, keeping a log that users can review after each session. (The device retails for $350; an additional $95 buys a yearly subscription to more than 300 guided meditations.)
For many meditators, particularly for those new to the practice, the biofeedback and the accompanying documentation provide reassurance, Garten says.
“Most people have a misconception that your mind is supposed to go blank, but if you try to meditate with that belief, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Your mind never goes blank,” she says. “Muse shows you what you’re supposed to be doing: You’re putting your attention on your breath, you’re notified when your mind wanders, you return to your breath. Just knowing what the process is, is tremendous for people.”
The company has a lofty pedigree: Garten studied neuroscience at the University of Toronto, researched Parkinson’s disease and hippocampal neurogenesis in labs at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre, has guest lectured at MIT’s Neurotechnology program and worked in the Mann Lab, a pioneer in wearable technology, with Muse’s cofounder Chris Aimone.
In the early 2000s, Garten and Aimone were working with brain-computer interface technology, creating experimental concerts during which the audience controlled music with their minds. Participants slipped an EEG on the back of their head, and as they relaxed, the change in brainwave activity altered the quality and volume of the room’s audio output.
“We spent a long time thinking that our work was going to be about controlling technology with your mind and later realized that the most powerful part of this was showing what was going on in your own mind,” Garten says. “We were giving you insights and feedback on your own mental activity. The best way to apply this was to help more people meditate.”
Since its launch, Muse has been used for breast cancer patients at the Mayo Clinic, as well as at other prestigious institutions like Harvard and NASA. A 2018 paper on a four-week study at the Catholic University of Milan documented neuroplastic changes to Muse users’ brains and reduction of their stress levels.
Garten cites studies by Harvard professor Sara Lazar that demonstrate long-term meditators have improved thickness in their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher order processing, cognition and metacognition, as well as more connections between the left and right sections of the brain. Aging, too, is helped by regular meditation, which decreases the presence of cortisol, a stress hormone that can shrink the hippocampus.
Successful meditation, Garten says, promotes higher functioning by helping regulate the competing messages in our brain.
“Our amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for our fight or flight response, gets freaked out at all sorts of things that may or may not be relevant. There’s this dance between the amygdala, which is the child, and the prefrontal cortex, which is the parent,” she explains. “Through meditation process, you’re strengthening your prefrontal cortex’s ability to actually rise above, see what’s going on in the situation, and then make a better choice about it.”
That ability, and the promotion of emotional intelligence, is resonating with corporations like Shopify, as well as major media and banking companies that have also enlisted Muse for workshops and meditation “challenges.”
Garten says her corporate clients gain increased productivity, focus, job satisfaction and decreased stress levels and employee conflict. “In the workplace context, metacognition is key,” she says. “It’s the difference between being driven by habits and frustration, and being a more disciplined, wiser individual.”
Among Muse’s fans: executive coach Alex Charfen and Trend Micro president Wael Mohammed, a Muse user who became an investor.
“It’s a tool that high value performers use across the board. You’re a high-level entrepreneur because you like data, feedback and the ability to make good decisions. This charts your progress and makes it actionable, which is very appealing,” Garten says.
Muse’s success reflects a broader, and recent, cultural shift: Garten, Aimone and their third cofounder, Trevor Coleman, initially marketed the technology in Muse as a cognitive trainer, decorated with “logos of brains with muscles,” Garten recalls. In 2012, when the trio tried to get funding, investors balked.
“They’d say: ‘You have this incredible technology that can read brains. What’s your killer app?’ We’d say, ‘Meditation,’ and they’d look at us like, ‘Are you guys kidding?’” Garten recalls. “Today, most educated people understand that you need to eat well, exercise and relieve stress through meditation. It’s part of the canon of things that we do, but that’s an incredibly recent market trend.”
Still, for some meditation teachers, an app based on rewards and control undermines the central premise of mindfulness.
“There’s a lot of gaming involved and it’s very Western, external and goal-oriented. We are so addicted to and dependent on devices that, for me, it’s almost ironic to use a device on our heads to get out of our heads,” says Cathy Trentalancia, founder of MindScience and a meditation teacher who works with companies like American Express, Sony, Moinian, Simpson Thatcher, Shiseido, Carnegie Hall, and at MNDFL studios in New York.
“Muse definitely seems fun, but meditation isn’t necessarily about having fun. It’s about learning to create space and learning how to be comfortable with whatever is there. When you yourself notice your mind is wandering, that’s mindfulness. An external entity shouldn’t do that for you,” she says.
While Trentalancia is skeptical about Muse’s device, she does recommend guided meditation apps like Dan Harris’ Ten Percent Happier; Insight Timer and Journey LIVE. “I think Muse can offer something very interesting in the EEG experience. It’s fascinating, but it’s not the same journey,” she says.
Garten agrees that experienced meditators may ultimately eschew Muse and says that while she still uses Muse as a base tool, she has expanded her practice to multiple other forms of meditation. Still, for beginners, and for those wanting to honor New Year’s resolutions to pursue a more mindful life, Muse’s empirical, data-driven approach may create useful habits.
“Muse was the thing that really taught me to meditate, it was the thing that finally gave me that aha moment of, ‘Oh, this is what meditation is,’” she says. “It taught me the discipline of coming back to my breath, and the comfort of being able to let go of stray thoughts.”