I've been walking around wearing an odd, forehead-covering, Rambo-like headband called Muse this week. In this world of short attention spans, for some reason I was convinced I would have good control of my brain and this device was going to prove that to me.
Muse is a sensor technology-filled headband which I got from Dmitry Selitskiy at Thought Wired. It's worn across your forehead and uses EEG (electroencephalography) to measure the electrical voltage fluctuations from ionic current flows within the neurons of the brain. Basically it detects and records how active your brain cells are, then sends that information via Bluetooth to an app for live brain activity tracking.
Harvard University psychologists have shown that people spend 47 per cent of their waking hours thinking about something other than whatever it is they're trying to focus on. This mental drift state can lead to stress, difficulties in concentrating and low focus periods at work.
Luckily our brains are neuroplastic, meaning that just like a muscle they can be trained through repetitive exercise to strengthen in certain areas. The data from the headband combined with live neurofeedback training from the app can help the user to achieve states of calm on command.
My goal this week was to see if I could outsmart my brain and train it to focus more when all I wanted to do was browse puppy pictures on the internet.
I am really grateful for how far technology has advanced since the days when this measurement was carried out by drilling holes into the heads of monkeys to attach the sensors. Our skulls are so thick that they block most of the brain waves we want to externally detect, and only 10 years ago epilepsy patients would have hundreds of cables physically glued to their scalps for measurements like this to be made.
Thankfully, recent developments in technology mean that new sensors are sensitive enough to amplify the brain current signal through the ionic potential of the sweat and moisture on our skin, meaning no more drilling or gluing is required.
Results from those previous painstaking studies have found that our brains emit oscillating signals of variable frequency. The ones I'm interested in are alpha waves (9-13 Hz) which indicate my brain is in a relaxed state and beta (14-30 Hz) or gamma waves (30-100 Hz) which indicate my brain is on high alert and capable of focused thinking.
The headband combines with a training app rewarding you when you achieve a certain EEG rhythm such as increasing your alpha activity, thought to be associated with focused attention and a feeling of calm and well-being. By listening to your brain through sound feedback where a calm brain plays sounds of soft lapping waves and an overactive brain results in strong wind and stormy weather sounds, the goal is to create pockets of more calming waves.
Frustratingly, my first results showed I was only 13 per cent calm; I seemed to have no control of my brain. In fact the feeling of failure I felt when surrounded by a cacophony of stormy weather just stressed me out, making my results worse. However, after a few days of training I've managed to improve my mind control and have started using it when I need to focus or just relax after a stressful meeting. It's still early days, but I am feeling able to focus more. Although mostly I'm just enjoying wearing something that looks like it came off the Starship Enterprise, while walking around pretending I can read other people's thoughts.
This column is sponsored by Callaghan Innovation to promote the coverage of science and innovation. The views expressed are the author's own.